Graham Williams Reviews

SPIRIT OF THE AMERICAN RANGE

SPIRIT OF THE AMERICAN RANGE, Oregon Symphony, Carlos Kalmar/PENTATONE SACD PTC 5186 481 ‘Spirit of the American Range’ is the title of the third ‘themed’ release on the PENTATONE label from Carlos Kalmar and the  Oregon Symphony. The first two – ‘Music for a Time of War’ and ‘This England’ –  were outstanding not only for the quality of  Kalmar’s searching and idiomatic interpretations, the superb playing of the Oregon Symphony and the magnificent sound quality achieved by the engineers but also the imaginative choice of the music on these discs. In every respect this new release matches or exceeds the high standard of the earlier ones and it is also, without doubt, amongst the finest orchestral recordings I have heard for quite some time. Continue reading

A New Petrouchka from Chandos

STRAVINSKY: CONCERTANTE MUSIC FOR PIANO & ORCHESTRA, PETROUCHKA, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, Yan Pascal Tortelier/CHANDOS CHSA 5147 SACD This collection of Stravinsky’s works for Piano and Orchestra is a most welcome release as it includes three comparatively neglected works from the composer’s output as well as one of his most popular. Both the ‘Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments’ and the ‘Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra’ were composed in the 1920s as vehicles for Stravinsky’s own performances as a pianist. The composer once described the Concerto (composed 1923-24 and revised in 1950) as being “in the style of the seventeenth century viewed from the point of view today” and the combination of piano with winds, brass and timpani produce some striking sonorities. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, a pianist who has made award winning recordings of both the Bartok and Prokofiev Piano Concertos, brings his formidable technique to bear in this complex piece. His playing is both incisive and alert while the excellently balanced Chandos recording ensures that the considerable power of the wind body never obscures the piano lines.  The ‘Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra’ appeared in 1928-29 and is such a delightfully witty piece that its relative obscurity is hard to fathom. Like the Concerto it is in three movements and following a stern couple of opening bars it quickly adopts an insouciance worthy of Poulenc. The second movement has an almost baroque feel and includes a cadenza in which the piano mimics the cimbalom – an instrument whose sound Stravinsky much enjoyed. The final sparkling ‘Allegro capriccioso’ beguiles us from start to finish. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet brings a Gallic lightness of touch to this work and he is nimbly accompanied by Tortelier and the players of the fine São Paulo Symphony Orchestra. Stravinsky’s interest in serial or dodecaphonic music first manifested itself in the 1950s in works such as ‘Agon’ and the ‘Canticum Sacrum’. But in 1959 he embraced it fully when he wrote the apothegmatic ‘Movements’. This came about as a result of the commission that he received from a Swiss tycoon for his wife, the pianist Margrit Weber, who gave the first performance, with Stravinsky conducting, in January 1960 and later recorded it with Ferenc Fricsay. The piece is in five short movements that together last a mere 9′ 19”, and the clarity and precision of Bavouzet’s committed performance does justice to the intricacies of this challenging cerebral composition. Stravinsky’s ballet ‘Pétrouchka’ was originally conceived as a ‘Konzertstück’ for piano and orchestra, so its appearance here as a fill-up to the other three works is both an apposite and a generous one. Tortelier’s is a generally sprightly account of the score – given in Stravinsky’s 1946 revision of the ballet rather than the more exotically scored version of 1910 – though a touch more exuberance in the latter parts of the work would not have gone amiss. The brilliant playing of Bavouzet in the Shrove-tide fair and Danse russe sections of the score certainly adds great character to the performance and his spicy interaction with the fine wind players of the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra in Part 2 is most engaging. One minor disappointment was that the clashing cymbals throughout the opening of Part 3 – The Blackamoor – are too distant, though elsewhere the recording is vivid and, as I have already indicated, well-balanced. Altogether this is a most enjoyable SACD that will further undoubtedly enhance the reputation of Jean-Efflam Bavouzet as one of today’s most compelling performers.

 

Solti’s Ring on a Single Blu-Ray Audio Disc

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WAGNER: DER RING DES NIBELUNGEN Nilsson, Windgassen et al, Vienna Philharmonic, Georg Solti/Decca Blu-Ray Audio 478 6748  In the long history of recorded music, there are very few recordings can be claimed as the greatest achievement of the medium. But even non-Wagnerians are prepared to acknowledge that Solti’s Ring – the first compete stereo recording –may be the summit of the art. Most of the of those who possessed that bulky but impressive LP boxed set as the centrepiece of their classical collection will have replaced it with various CD upgrades over the years, and may have been slightly wary of the much-trumpeted new single disc Blu-ray audio issue which – amazingly – compresses the entire 14 hours of the cycle onto a single disc. It now arrives in a more compact package: a handsome box with complete libretti, and everything you have heard about it is true. It is – let’s not mince words – a quite amazing achievement. The sound quality is so clear and wide-ranging that the operas sound as if they were recording yesterday; what’s more, noise reduction techniques have left the upper register clear and pellucid while taking out any inherent hiss. It is completely unnecessary to rehearse the merits of this set (or the handful of qualifications), Wagner’s magnum opus in the Solti/John Culshaw reading is simply de rigueur. If one has a single caveat, it is regarding the lack of documentation, which fails to point out the fact that each individual opera has been allocated (for access) its own button on the Blu-ray control: red, yellow, green and blue bring up Das Rheingold etc. separately. It took me a while to figure this out, but perhaps this was an intelligence test that I failed. Nevertheless, this set is quite simply an unsurpassed achievement, and having it on a single disc is a justification for modern advances in Blu-ray audio technology.

WALTON: SYMPHONY NO. 2 / CELLO CONCERTO* / IMPROVISATIONS ON AN IMPROMPTU OF BENJAMIN BRITTEN, Paul Watkins (cello)* / BBC Symphony Orchestra / Edward Gardner/CHANDOS CHSA 5153  Several decades ago, this writer would ask (at intervals) the conductor Andre Previn how Walton’s 3rd Symphony was progressing ; the composer (living in his idyllic Capri garden retreat) had tentatively promised that he would provide a successor to the sardonic Second, but as Previn ruefully admitted to me, it would probably never be written. Which is a shame, as the two existing symphonies are so different; perhaps the massive Sibelian First and its more compact successor might have been set off in an appropriate fashion by a third symphony. The second has never quite enjoyed the acclaim it clearly deserves (not even when Previn set down an impressive account for EMI), but Edward Gardner’s highly impressive new disc (in which he conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra) is a worthy successor to his much-acclaimed recording of the composer’s Symphony No. 1 and Violin Concerto, a notable bestseller for Chandos. Gardner’s clear sympathy for the music is luminous in every bar. Unlike the recent BIS/Hughes recording, the Chandos engineers have set the prominent piano part some distance back in the orchestral mix, which those who have enjoyed this piquant detail of orchestration may find disappointing. But everything else about this performance is exemplary, with Gardner coaxing out every nuance of the music and its nervous electric energy. Walton’s Second and final Symphony was commissioned for the 750th anniversary, in 1957 – 58, of the founding of the city of Liverpool, but, delayed by the composition of the Cello Concerto. It was only premiered in 1960. It is scored for a large orchestra, utilising as a model as the Third Symphony of Albert Roussel, in its concision and the use of the key of G minor. The Cello Concerto, brilliantly played here, was premiered in London in 1957 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra itself. The last piece on this winning SACD has an improvisatory nature, and is based on the ‘Impromptu’ of Benjamin Britten’s Piano Concerto.

MAHLER: SYMPHONY NUMBER 5/SYMPHONY NUMBER 9, Gewandhuas Orchester/Riccardo Chailly/ACCENTUS BLU-RAY ACC 12O284/ACC 10299  Riccardo Chailly’s Mahler has long been one of the great glories of modern recording, channelling the drama and insight of the great conductors of the past (from Bruno Walter to Leonard Bernstein) but enshrining his performances in recordings that make his predecessor’s discs sound positively antediluvian in terms of recorded sound. Vying for the upper echelons of the audiophile market now are Blu-ray audio discs, as these two impressive performances from Accentus presented on Blu-ray, as opposed to the SACD format with which they are increasingly coexisting. And in terms of sheer sonic splendour (leaving aside the felicities of the performances), these are among the most wide-ranging and exhilarating since the classic Michael Tilson Thomas performances from San Francisco. Of the two symphonies, Chailly manages an impeccable balance of sensitivity and dynamism in the Fifth, while the adagietto is limpidly beautiful, even allowing the listener to forget just how hackneyed this piece has become. It perhaps does not quite find the final ounce of tragic grander in the monumental slow movements of the 9th Symphony, the performance is still among the best that this much-recorded piece has enjoyed in recent years. If you possess a Blu-ray machine and a decent speaker setup I have three words of advice: do not hesitate.

WEINBERG: CHAMBER SYMPHONY NO. 3, OP. 151 / CHAMBER SYMPHONY NO. 4, OP 153. Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra / Thord Svedlund/CHANDOS CHSA 5146  Those who remember some impressive Melodiya discs of Weinberg symphonies (when he went under the de-Semitised name of Vaignberg) will be celebrating the positive avalanche of new recordings of his music, and this new disc is one of the most intriguing. The ongoing SACD series of orchestral works by Weinberg now explores some lesser-known, late works of the composer. This disc features the last two Chamber Symphonies, which reflect a largely hidden, yet still busy period for the composer. The Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra, recording with Chandos for the first time, is conducted by the able Thord Svedlund. The Chamber Symphony No. 4 is among the last music that Weinberg completed, and has a valedictory air, suggesting his unhappy final years, It is a piece of immense feeling. The Chamber Symphony No. 3 is aligned with the fifth String Quartet No. 5, Op. 27 and is yet another neglected Weinberg masterpiece.

RICHARD STRAUSS: FEUERSNOT Markus Eiche, Lars Woldt, Simone Schneider, Wilhelm Schwinghammer, Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Kinderchor des Staatstheaters am Gärtnerplatz, Münchner Rundfunkorchester, Ulf Schirmer/CPO 777920-2  A very welcome issue for one of Richard Strauss’s most neglected operas; this is a set which makes a strong case for the piece. Just after the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth, CPO’s concert performance of Feuersnot reveals Strauss’s riff on Wagner as something of a hidden gem, with Ulf Schirmer and his cast nailing the opera’s quirky mix of homage and parody.

SIBELIUS: SYMPHONIES 2 & 7 BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Thomas Sondergard/LINN CKD462  Perfectly serviceable performances of these two very different Sibelius symphonies, but it’s hard to judge the readings objectively, given the decision to record the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in a rather non-analytic acoustic. Sibelius’s master of orchestration certainly makes its mark, but some incidental detail remains opaque, and that is not helpful in the case of this glorious music. For those who do not possess (for instance); the complete SACD set of Sibelius symphonies on DG by Järvi – also, it has to be observed not without its problems — this might be a competitive issue, but one hopes that more incisive readings and a more wide-ranging recording will accompany future issues and resources.

SAINT-SAËNS: SYMPHONY NO. 3 IN C MINOR, ETC., Orchestre National de Lyon, Vincent Warnier/Naxos Blu-ray Audio NBD0045 Blu-ray audio continues to make its mark with yet another stunningly recorded disc, and this Saint-Saëns collection was recorded to celebrate the inauguration of the newly restored former organ of the Palais du Trocadéro and Palais de Chaillot in Paris. The Orchestre National de Lyon and their organist-in-residence, Vincent Warnier, present two major works for organ and orchestra by Camille Saint-Saëns, both of which are historically linked with the great Cavaillé-Coll organs. Saint-Saëns’ inclusion of organ and piano in his Symphony No. 3 in C minor was unprecedented at the time, and is a spectacular example of music both resplendent and grandiose. This is coupled here with the rare and poignant Cyprès et Lauriers, under the baton of Leonard Slatkin.

PETRASSI: CORO DI MORTI* / QUATTRO INNI SACRI† / PARTITA / NOCHE OSCURA* Giorgio Berrugi (tenor)† /Vasily Ladyuk (baritone)† / Coro Teatro Regio Torino* Orchestra Teatro Regio Torino / Gianandrea Noseda/ CHAN 10840  when will it end? When will the enterprising recording company Chandos run out of neglected composers for new advocacy? Not for some time, if this collectable disc is anything to go by. This new Petrassi recording with Gianandrea Noseda and his Italian forces is part of the company’s ongoing Italian music series. As with Noche oscura and Quattro inni sacri, composed round 1950, the Coro di morti is proof positive that of Petrassi’s skills at the beginning of the 1940s. It remains one of the most admired and frequently performed of his compositions. According to Cardinal Andrea Lanza, the work, composed and premiered during the Second World War, reveals a marked ‘opposition in discourse… between the solitude of man and the destruction surrounding him’, all of which is clearly relayed in the harrowing contrast between relaxed choral lines on the one hand and solid conglomeration of instruments on the other. The Partita is one of the earliest works Petrassi composed.

NIELSEN: Symphony No. 1; Symphony No. 3 ‘Sinfonia Espansiva’ Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, Sakari Oramo BIS SACD 2048 For those of us (such as this writer) who are enjoying the current live performances by Oramo as he works his way through the unique symphonic cycle of Carl Nielsen, it’s a reminder that we are in something of a golden age for the composer. Colin Davis’s Indian summer recordings were set down with the LSO and were a remarkable achievement – as this latest cycle is proving. The recent recording of the Fifth Symphony with its aggressive side-drum was one of the most impressive since Horenstein’s groundbreaking recording, and this new coupling is almost equally competitive in a crowded field The first volume of this new cycle was widely acclaimed upon its release in December 2013 (BIS2028). Symphony No. 1 owes much to Schumann and was completed in 1892, when the composer was still in his mid-twenties. Symphony No. 3 marks Nielsen’s true breakthrough, twenty years after the first symphony, and rapidly established itself as a mainstay of concert repertoire for Europe’s leading orchestras.

BRUCKNER: SYMPHONY NO.4, ‘ROMANTIC’, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Manfred Honeck/Reference Recordings SACD FR-713SACD Bruckner’s avowedly religious sympathies are less in evidence in his Symphony No. 4 in E-flat major (“Romantic”). This secular, pantheistic symphony is perhaps his most popular work, and The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and ther Music Director Manfred Honeck have – in a very short space of time – become one of the most exciting teams in the modern classical world, with recordings that combine superlative musicianship with unparalleled recording quality (courtesy of Reference Recordings). And so (as with the previous Dvořák/Janaček coupling) it again proves here, as we are offered a striking  new interpretation of this imperishable masterpiece, The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and Honeck present the 1878/80 version. the version that was utilised for the symphony’s premiere in 1881.

DEBUSSY: IMAGES, LA MER, ETC. Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Lan Shui/BIS SACD1837 When the SACD medium was a new venture, early adopters were keen to discover favourite works in the new medium. It’s a measure of the success of the medium (despite its being precipitately dropped by major companies such as DG) that we now have a variety of choice for such masterpiece as these Debussy classics. And Lan Shui proves to be among the most able interpreters of these pieces; no surprise in the case of this reading of La Mer, which has previously appeared in another coupling. This new Images proves to be highly competitive, if not quite rivalling great performances of the past – though the sound quality here is, of course, state of the art.

MUSIC FOR ALFRED HITCHCOCK, Danish National Symphony Orchestra, John Mauceri/Toccata Classics TOOCC 0241 With music from the likes of Bernard Herrmann, Franz Waxman and Dimitri Tiomkin, this excellent disc is a salutary reminder how judicious the Master of Suspense was in his choice of composers. Admittedly the original soundtrack recording have (in most cases) more bite, but it’s useful to have these superb scores on one disc in ear-pinging modern sound.

DVORAK: STRING QUARTETS 10 & 11, Zemlinsky Quartet/PRAGA DIGITALSPRD/DSD250 305  Performances of great colour and élan by the Zemlinsky Quartet, finding new things in these idiomatic pieces. The surround sound medium is used with sensitivy.

SCRIABIN/MEDNTER PIANO CONCERTOS BIS SACD 2088  I suppose I should nail my colours to the mask regarding this release; despite the following it has obtained in recent years, Medtner’s piano concerto remains something of a closed book to me, its charm elusive — even in a performance as persuasive (and as well recorded) as this one. But I have no such reservations about the Scriabin which is here given a performance to rival the classic reading by Vladimir Ashkenazy. Yevgeny Sudbin’s releases are eagerly awaited, and the pianist confronts the difficulties of these works with aplomb, aided by the Bergen Philharmonic and their chief conductor Andrew Litton.

VIVALDI: THE FOUR SEASONS Polish Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra, Daniel Gaede, violin Tacet 0163-4  In their customary piquant technique of placing the listener dead centre in the surround sound mix, this is a novel and ear-pleasing approach to an over-familiar masterpiece. A lithe and lean performance enhances the experience.

WEINBERG: Violin Concerto & Symphony No. 4, Kaspszyk, Warsaw Philharmonic / Ilya Gringolts / Jacek/Warner Classics 0825646224838  Yet more Weinberg. The Grammy Award-winning Warsaw Philharmonic, the most significant Polish orchestra of international renown, has begun a major new recording project with Warner Classics, under the baton of Artistic Director Jacek Kaspszyk: a new album of orchestral music by Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996). The album cements Weinberg’s growing posthumous reputation as one of the most important symphonists of the 20th century (he wrote no fewer than 22 works in the genre), along with his mentor Dmitri Shostakovich, the latter counting among the younger composer’s admirers. The Weinberg release follows the Warsaw Philharmonic’s Grammy Award win in 2012 and marks the orchestra’s first recording with its new maestro and artistic director Jacek Kaspszyk, renowned for his innovative approach to programming and his championing of new music.

IMPROMPTUS: CHOPIN/SCHUBERT/FAURÉ, Tomasz Lis/Klangoglo CDKL1511 A very promising debut album from Tomasz Lis, whose approach to these pieces is traditional but full of subtlety and sensitivity.

MENDELSSOHN: CALM SEA AND PROSPEROUS VOYAGE / SYMPHONY NO. 2 ‘HYMN OF PRAISE’* Mary Bevan (soprano I)* / Sophie Bevan (soprano II)* / Benjamin Hewlett (tenor)* / CBSO Chorus*/ City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Edward Gardner. Chandos SACD CHSA 5151  Not everyone has been persuaded by this ambitious cycle of Mendelssohn symphonies from Chandos, and certainly the conductor’s Walton cycle (see above) is much more of an unalloyed success. But there are very good things here not least in the performance of Hymn of Praise in which Gardner manages to some degree to shake off the fusty Victorian ethos of the piece. This is the third recording in the Mendelssohn in Birmingham series, with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and its Principal Guest Conductor.The symphony is synthesis of Cantata and symphony, and remains obstinately non-heterogeneous. But a good case is made for it here.

Fischer’s Brahms, Oramo’s Nielsen: Graham Williams Reviews

10220BRAHMS: SYMPHONY NO. 2; TRAGIC OVERTURE; ACADEMIC FESTIVAL OVERTURE, Budapest Festival Orchestra, Ivan Fischer/CHANNEL CLASSICS CCS SA 33514 SACD The photograph of a smiling Ivan Fisher presented on the cover of this SACD suggests a knowing prescience of the glorious performances of the three Brahms works that are recorded on this disc. This is the second release in Ivan Fischer’s gradually emerging cycle of the Brahms Symphonies with his Budapest Festival Orchestra and is, in every respect, as outstanding as the first. That the Budapest Festival Orchestra is in superlative form here is clear from the opening of the work where the lithe strings float in over a cushion of warm horns and beautifully blended winds. Timpani are notably clear even in the softest passages and Fischer makes the exposition repeat in the first movement – essential for the work’s overall shape and generally adopted more these days from conductors than it was in the past. Fischer’s interpretation is free of mannerisms that could in any way sour a single bar of what is arguably Brahms’s most beautiful symphony. Tempi throughout all four movements of the symphony are beautifully judged. The pace is relaxed, but always with an underlying forward moving pulse and the conductor’s subtle nuances within his set tempi are natural and unforced. That said, Fischer is not afraid to use a modicum of rubato where appropriate and the portamento he applies at the end of the first movement’s coda after an exquisitely phrased horn solo, seems just perfect to my ears. What perhaps is most remarkable about this reading is the sense that, as with so many recordings by Ivan Fischer, he has approached this symphony as if it was a new discovery for him. Brahms’s two contrasting Overtures make ideal fill-ups to the Symphony and they are both given performances that are equally outstanding. The Tragic Overture receives a fiery and cogent reading – taut, dramatic, expansive and entirely free of bathos. The Academic Festival Overture, built on themes taken from student songs and incidentally Brahms’s most heavily orchestrated work is played with gruff humour – the “Fuchs-Lied – Was kommt da von der Höh?” wittily played by rustic sounding bassoons. Fischer builds up the excitement gradually, and at the final statement of the student song ‘Gaudeamus igitur’ triangle cymbals ring out thrillingly underpinned by a firm bass drum. It is hardly necessary to say that the sound quality of this multi-channel 5.0 DSD recording is exemplary. It combines warmth and exceptional instrumental clarity in a remarkable way aided, of course, by the fine acoustic of the venue – the Palace of Arts, Budapest. The ambience provided by the surround channels is ample but not excessive. In short, this is a disc with impressive performances so thoroughly prepared, expertly executed and superbly recorded that one could not reasonably ask for more. Unreservedly recommended.

NIELSEN: SYMPHONY NO. 1 IN G MINOR;SYMPHONY NO. 3, ‘SINFONIA ESPANSIVA’, Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, Sakari Oramo/BIS 2048 SACD This is the second issue in the Nielsen Symphony cycle being undertaken by Sakari Oramo and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra for BIS. The first release, that coupled the 4th and 5th Symphonies, was greeted with considerable critical acclaim both for Oramo’s clear sighted and exciting interpretation and the superb quality of the BIS recording. It is pleasing to report that this coupling of Nielsen’s early 1st Symphony and his 3rd, the ‘Sinfonia Espansiva of 1910 -11 maintains the excellence of the earlier release in all respects. Tempi in both Symphonies hardly differ from those adopted by Alan Gilbert on his accounts (differently coupled ) with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra on Dacapo Records and while both orchestras perform magnificently for their respective conductors, the playing Oramo elicits from the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, especially in the 1st Symphony, has greater drive and character. The explosive opening movement of the ‘Sinfonia Espansiva’ is beautifully judged; its propulsive energy being captured to the full by Oramo and his fine orchestra. The contrasting ‘Andante pastorale’ is notable for the lovely quality of the soprano and baritone solo voices (Anu Komsi and Karl-Magnus Fredriksson) whose delivery of the melismatic vocal line seems well-nigh perfect. The many fugal passages in the final two movements are beautifully articulated while in the Finale the blazing horns statement of the movement’s main theme bring Oramo’s ripe account of this life-enhancing work to a thrilling conclusion. The recordings took place in the warm and generous acoustic of Stockholm’s Concert Hall in January 2013 (Symphony No. 1) and May 2014 (Symphony No. 3), and engineer Thore Brinkman’s 24/bit / 96kHz recording combines the necessary richness and bite to do full justice to Nielsen’s dynamic scores.  This release deserves an unqualified recommendation and makes one impatient for the release of the final instalment (Symphonies 2 and 6) of this excellent cycle during 2015 the Nielsen centenary year.

WEINBERG: CHAMBER SYMPHONIES NOS 3 & 4, Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra, Thord Svedlund/CHANDOS CHSA 5146 SACD Chandos’s fine survey of the orchestral works of Mieczyslaw Weinberg conducted by Thord Svedlund continues with this release of two of the composer’s late works. The two Chamber Symphonies on this beautifully recorded SACD date from the 1990s and show Weinberg’s creative powers to be undimmed even within four years of his death. The ‘Chamber Symphony No. 3 for Strings’ of 1990 is, like its two predecessors, based on the composer’s String Quartets – in this case the Quartet No.5 of 1945. Like Shostakovich in his quartets, Weinberg includes many self quotations throughout the piece, and it is fair to say those who are familiar with the Shostakovich/ Barshai Chamber Symphonies are likely to find much to enjoy here. The sinuous melody that opens the work is described perceptively by David Fanning as stylistically somewhere between Mahler and Bartok. A vigorous scherzo-like movement is followed ‘attacca’ by an eloquent ‘Adagio’ and the work is completed by a finale whose forlorn opening theme proceeds over a steady pizzicato tread in the lower strings before reaching its eventual dissolve into silence. The ‘Chamber Symphony No.4′ of 1992 is, unusually, scored for string orchestra, obbligato clarinet and triangle. The latter instrument only appears in the finale playing just four carefully placed notes. The clarinet part is interpreted with sensitivity and great virtuosity by Johnny Jannesson the principal clarinet of the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra and, as in the previous work, Weinberg makes extensive use of quotations from his earlier compositions. The recordings made in the Konserthuset, Helsingborg (4-7 March 2014) by the experienced team of Lennart Dehn (producer) and Torbjörn Samuelsson (recording engineer) could hardly be bettered in capturing both the acoustic ambience of the hall and the vividness of the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra’s strings over a wide dynamic range. The exceptionally informative liner notes by David Fanning are invaluable for their insights into both the background to these compositions and their musical content. They also include fascinating photographs of the composer and his Soviet colleagues taken over a number of years. Those who enjoy Weinberg’s music need not hesitate.

BACH: BRANDENBURG CONCERTOS, Florilegium, Ashley Solomon/CHANNEL CLASSICS CCS SA 35914 SACD (2 discs) Each new release from Ashley Solomon’s versatile period instrument group Florilegium is always an exciting prospect. A glance at their extensive discography indicates the wide span of their musical interests ranging from Telemann, Vivaldi, Haydn, Couperin and even extending to three exciting volumes of baroque music from Bolivia. It is therefore surprising to find that this is their first recording of one of the high points of Baroque instrumental music – Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. These six ever popular concertos have received countless recordings over the years and have been performed in many different styles, ranging from elephantine and definitely inauthentic performances of the past to the pared down period performances of more recent times. This new set from Florilegium obviously falls into the latter category, but thanks to Ashley Solomon’s beautifully judged tempi in each of the six concerti and Channel’s breathtakingly vivid 5.0 DSD recording made in the Church of St John the Evangelist, Upper Norwood, London in November last year there is a glow, richness and body to the sound that would be the envy of many orchestras. In an interesting departure from the norm these six concertos are presented here not in the familiar order of the set as presented by Bach to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg in 1721, but in reverse. Disc 1 Concertos 6,5 and 4. Disc 2 Concertos 3, 2 and 1. As Ashley Solomon points out in his excellent booklet notes these concertos were never meant to be performed as a set partly due to the constraints of their widely differing instrumentation, so the order in which they are played is largely unimportant. The sequence chosen by Florilegium simply illustrates the increase in instrumental forces as we move through the concertos, from No.6 with its group of just seven strings to No.1– the grandest and most orchestral of the set – requiring a compliment of 13 players and instrumentation that includes oboes, bassoon, horns and piccolo violin as well as a quintet of strings and harpsichord continuo. There is a natural unforced quality to the music making throughout this set that is immediately engaging, and listener’s will surely be delighted by the virtuosity of the soloists whether it be Terence Charlston’s flamboyant harpsichord solos in No.5, Richard Fomison’s stratospheric trumpet playing in No.2 or the lovely recorder duo of Ashley Solomon and Elspeth Robertson in No. 4. To be fair though, the performances of all twenty one musicians heard here deserve the utmost praise. The recording quality, as I have already indicated, is beyond reproach. Solo instruments are beautifully balanced with a wonderful sense of air around them and their spatial positioning within the sound picture is always perfectly defined. The insatiable public demand for new recordings of the Brandenburg Concertos apparently seems unstoppable, but, in spite of fierce competition, this new release from Florilegium should be at the top of anyone’s shopping list.

SCRIABIN / MEDTNER PIANO CONCERTOS, Yevgeny Subdin, Bergen Philharmonic, Andrew Litton/ BIS-2088 SACD The gloriously romantic main theme of the first movement of Scriabin’s early Piano Concerto is one of those lush surging melodies that remains in one’s mind for days after listening to this work. The composer wrote his only Piano Concerto in 1896 at the age of 24 and, as Yevgeny Subdin reminds us in his thoughtful and enthusiastic liner notes, Scriabin’s debt to Chopin should not be overestimated. It is true that Chopin’s influence can clearly be heard at times in the decorative figurations of the piano writing, but as the work progresses elements of Tchaikovsky and even Rachmaninov are detectable as the young composer tries to find his own unique voice. Subdin brings an almost improvisatory feel to the comparatively brief opening ‘Allegro’ movement and both the sensitivity and crystalline clarity of his playing are as impressive as is to be expected from this exceptionally gifted pianist. The second movement marked ‘Andante’ is a most beautiful set of variations, and here praise must be given to the fine support from Andrew Litton and the Bergen Philharmonic that in every way matches the subtle nuances of Subdin’s performance. It is in the joyful ‘Allegro moderato’ finale – the Concerto’s longest movement that Scriabin lyrical outpourings are at their most appealing. Subdin handles the capricious nature of this movement superbly and Litton even manages to inject a degree of transparency into Scriabin’s sometimes rather opaque scoring. Although Ashkenazy’s 1971 version of this concerto with Maazel and the LPO still sounds remarkably fine for its age, Subdin’s different but equally valid interpretation is now likely to be a first choice for most listeners, particularly if sound quality is of paramount importance. Subdin has become something of a standard bearer for the works of Nikolai Medtner (1881-1951) having, with this release, recorded all three of Medtner’s Piano Concertos for BIS with three different orchestras and conductors. Medtner’s 3rd Piano Concerto, ‘Ballade’, arguably his finest, was premiered by the composer and Sir Adrian Boult in 1944 and it is dedicated to the Maharajah of Mysore, a champion of Medtner and founder of the Medtner Society. Though ostensibly in three movements played without a break, the middle one marked ‘Interludium’ lasts less than a minute and a half so is really just a linking section framed by two fantasia-like outer movements, each of which test the expressive abilities and technical prowess of the solo performer to the limit. The many changes of mood and pace suit Subdin’s style of imaginative pianism and flamboyant virtuosity to perfection while Andrew Litton and his Bergen forces provide a wonderfully rich cushion of glowing orchestral sound. Though this work has received a number of fine recordings on CD most notably in the 1990s from Nikolai Demidenko (Hyperion) and Geoffrey Tozer (Chandos), Subdin’s incendiary account recorded in superb BIS sound will prove irresistible for many.

 

PentaTone Revisits Quad Classics; Plus Ravel, Bach & Grieg

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PENTATONE QUADRAPHONIC CLASSICS: MOZART: PIANO CONCERTOS NOS. 14 & 26, Berliner Philharmoniker, Tamas Vasary/RAVEL: ORCHESTRAL WORKS, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa/GIULIANI, CASTELNUOVO-TEDESCO,VILLA-LOBOS: Guitar Concertos  Narciso Yepes, London Symphony Orchestra, Luis Navarro/BACH: BRANDENBURG CONCERTOS, Members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, Pinchas Zukerman/PentaTone SACD For those (such as this writer) who remember the original LP issues of quadraphonic recordings decades ago there is – generally — one abiding memory: the fact was that very few of us possessed the necessary equipment to hear the multi-channel facility of the discs as the engineers intended us to, and (as a corollary to that) when played on ordinary stereophonic equipment of the day (when mixed down to 2 channels), such discs didn’t sound notably more impressive than ordinary recordings. But what a luxury in the 21st-century to hear these discs, not only as they were originally intended, but clearly sounding better on SACD than they would have done when originally recorded, given the technological limitations of the long-playing record. PentaTone have led the way in making this material available again in their valuable reissues (which includes material previously unreleased) and this latest batch, attractively presented, not only offers superlative sound values (as one would expect) but reinvigorates some classic performances, such as the Tamas Vasary Mozart piano concertos 14 and 26 issued here. Another revelation is the set of the Bach Brandenburg Concertos, performed by a larger group than one might expect these days, but still sounding immensely musical and sympathetic under the direction of Pinchas Zukerman. If the sound of the Ozawa Ravel disc is a little opaque, it is particularly pleasurable to hear the great guitarist Narciso Yepes in recordings that do justice to his definitive performances of the guitar concerto repertoire.

VIVALDI: SEVEN WITH A STROKE!/THE FOUR SEASONS Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, Ariadne Daskalalakis/Tacet B205 & Polish Chamber Philharmonic, Daniel Gaede/Tacet S163  Forget the gimmicky title of the first disc; this is a superlative collection of Vivaldi concerti delivered with affection, in which the listener (as is customary with the Tacet label) is placed via complete surround sound directly in the centre of the musicians, will be rear channels used for individual instruments rather than to provide concert hall ambience. There are those object to this strategy, but there is no denying the immense effectiveness of this immersive experience – and naysayers could consider that this is how the musicians themselves experience a performance. The players have the absolute measure of Vivaldi, as in the sister recording of The Four Seasons from the same company, which equally does justice to the familiar counterpoint, allowing individual stands strands to be heard with maximum clarity (and as a codicil, Tacet’s issue of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos also deserves a hearty welcome).

ENGLISH SONG John Shirley Quirk, baritone, various pianists/Heritage HTGCD 283/4  While Bryn Terfel holds the crown today, there was a time when Britain’s finest baritone was undoubtedly the late John Shirley-Quirk. The Liverpool-born singer’s beautiful timbre, consummate musicianship and (notably) attention to detail in lyrics placed him firmly at the top of the tree. I once interviewed him in his native city before his appearance in Britten’s opera Death in Venice, and before the interview he was singing in rehearsal some of the material which had just arrived from Britten — it’s musical moments like that that one does not forget. Shirley-Quirk’s three early LPs for the Saga label were acclaimed as being among the glories of the gramophone, and his performance of such works as Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel were long considered to be definitive, although later performances by such singers as the aforementioned Bryn Terfel have challenged that supremacy. But here are those splendid recitals on two CDs, admittedly showing their age but sounding better than they have ever done – and they are a reminder what an asset the late baritone was to the English music scene.

MCCABE:  SYPHONY NO.1, etc., National Youth Orchestra of Scotland, John McCabe/NAXOS 8.571370  A welcome  collection of several important recordings of the music of the celebrated British composer John McCabe, none of which has appeared before on CD. Admittedly, the age of the recordings (dating from the 60s to the 80s) means that none of them is in the highest of fi, but a certain amount of tape hiss is more than acceptable when several gaps in the McCabe recorded repertoire are plugged here (we have had the Second Symphony for some time, but this is the first appearance on CD of its predecessor). The First Symphony, heard here in its only recording to date by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under John Shashall, is a work of keen intelligence and kinetic energy. The Fantasy on a Theme of Liszt is a consummately crafted work, performed with masterful skill by McCabe at the piano. Scored for very large orchestra, ‘Tuning’ develops layers of texture and sonority of overwhelming richness in which the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland revel – this is the only recording of John McCabe as conductor.

R. STRAUSS: ELEKTRA, Evelyn Herlitzius, Various artists, Essa-Pekka Salonen/Bel-Air Classiques Blu-ray BAC410  in terms of opera on Blu-ray, we are in something of a golden age with a variety of choices available to listeners. Proof? Here is another splendid Blu-ray recording of Richard Strauss’s masterpiece Elektra to join the several impressive sets available. This was the last production ever staged by Patrice Chéreau, and this disc preserves one of the most striking opera events of recent years.

BEETHOVEN: Ah! Perfido, etc./CHERUBINI: Symphony, etc. Maria Bengtsson, Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne, Bertrand de Billy/MDG 940 1854-6 SACD With the very able Maria Bengtsson accompanied by the Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne conducted by Bertrand de Billy, these pieces are given the best possible advocacy; particularly welcome as these are the first performances in the surround sound medium.

WAGNER: THE SYMPHONIC RING, Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie, Daniel Klajner/Coviello COV 91417 SACD while Wagnerian purists may sniff at the notion of orchestral versions of The Ring (or ‘bleeding chunks of Wagner’ as these excerpts used to be known), it’s clear that many listeners do not share this disapproval, as a variety of such discs continues to appear. This latest one is different from all of its predecessors in not attempting to condense Wagner’s 15-hour masterpiece onto a single disc, and we are given two well-filled SACDs with virtually every important orchestral passage included (the arrangements are by Andreas N Tarkmann) – and in performances of great authority. Some of the transcriptions of vocal lines (such as the ‘Wintersturme’ duet from Die Walkure, for instance) are less successful, but the disc is sheer delight for those not given to snobbishness.

RAVEL: DAPHNIS ET CHLOE, Beethoven Orchester Bonn, Stefan Blunier MDG 937 1863-6 SACD Ravel’s beguiling ballet has been particularly lucky in the surround sound medium, with excellent performances on disc from such conductors as Haitink and Gergiev. Here is another exemplary reading which finds much of the music’s poetry and drama in impressive sound.

BACH: THE ART OF FUGUE/THE WELL TEMPERED CLAVIER Angela Hewitt, piano; John Butt, harpsichord/Hyperion & Linn Those who have acquired the comprehensive multidisc set by Angela Hewitt of Bach’s keyboard music will need little persuasion to acquire this new edition of The Art of Fugue by the pianist, played with her customary sensitivity and precision. More Bach keyboard music is available in the Linn set of The Well-Tempered Clavier played by John Butt which utilises recent editions, allowing the listener to experience the latest possible stage of Bach’s thoughts for each book. Many listeners (such as this writer) will now prefer the music played on a modern concert piano, but John Butt makes the best case for this music on a harpsichord — if, that is, you don’t tire of the limited harpsichord timbre.

GRIEG: COMPLETE SYMPHONIC WORKS VOLUME 4, Herbert Schuch, piano, WDR Sinf., Eivind Aadkand/Audite 92.670 SACD With Volume 4, this commendable Audite series finally gets around to Grieg’s most popular work, his warhorse Piano Concerto, enterprisingly coupled with what is perhaps the composer’s least-known music, his withdrawn Symphony in C Minor. The latter is hardly essential listening, but Grieg aficionados will welcome this sensitive performance which makes a good case for it, and the concerto is given a reading of great spirit and colour.

TCHAIKOVSKY SERENADE FOR STRINGS IN C/BARTOK DIVERTIMENTO FOR STRING ORCHESTRA LSO String Ensemble, Roman Simovic/LSO Live LSO 0752 SACD A reminder – if reminder were needed– just how world-class the string section of the London Symphony Orchestra is, now finally the equal of the orchestra’s celebrated brass section, the latter long considered among the finest in the world. Both pieces here are given performances of great authority.

CLASSICAL CD CHOICE CD OF THE MONTH: BACH: BRANDENBURG CONCERTOS, Floreligium/Channel Classics CCSA 35914 SACD  Those looking for pointed, authentic-sounding performances of these imperishable masterpieces in multi-channel now have a variety of choices, but this lively set (in a new order) by Floreligium is particularly recommendable, and at a stroke joins the finest available.

SZYMANOWSKI : SYMPHONY NO.1 / LOVE SONGS OF HAFIZ, OP.26/ SYMPHONY NO.3, OP.27  Ben Johnson (tenor), BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Edward Gardner/CHANDOS SACD CHSA 5143  Chandos is a label celebrated for its attention to repertoire in which orchestration is a crucial element, so it’s hardly surprising that the company’s Szymanowski series has proved to be a winner seeing off all competition — which is very much the case with this latest issue in which Edward Gardner returns with the BBC Symphony Orchestra to the intoxicating orchestral music of Szymanowski in their third disc devoted to the composer. Tenor Ben Johnson joins Gardner and the BBC SO here as a soloist in two works. Szymanowski’s Symphony No. 1 was composed in 1907 while he was still in his twenties. Stylistically it belongs to his early period, heavily influenced by the late-Romantic style of Wagner and Strauss. The exquisite Love Songs of Hafiz for tenor soloist and orchestra are transitional works. Composed in 1911, they represent a move toward his middle period marked by a fascination with oriental themes, here reflected in the choice to set 14th Century Persian poetry. Scored for a huge orchestra with choir and tenor soloist, Szymanowski’s Symphony No. 3 ‘Song of the Night’ is one his masterpieces.

TCHAIKOVSKY: THE NUTCRACKER, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Neeme Järvi/CHANDOS SACD CHSA 5144  For those who have been collecting the Järvi/Chandos recordings of the Tchaikovsky ballets, this final issue will be unmissable. This complete, uncut version of The Nutcracker follows The Sleeping Beauty (CHSA 5113(2)) and Swan Lake (CHSA 5124 (2)). The Nutcracker draws its influences from both Hoffmann’s and Dumas’s tales of the same name, and for this recording, Neeme Järvi and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra have re-explored Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece together, in order to offer a completely new experience of one of the most-performed ballets in musical history.

SOMETHING’S GOTTA GIVE: Songs by Jerome Kern & Hammerstein, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Lerner & Loewe et al. Simon Keenlyside (baritone) Scarlett Strallen (soprano), BBC Concert Orchestra, David Charles Abell/CHANDOS CHAN 10838   The history of classical singers tackling Broadway material from the great American songbook has been distinctly spotty, with few singers managing to find the nuance that (say) Frank Sinatra routinely found in the songs of Gershwin et al. Jessye Norman, for instance, despite the beauty of tone, always sounded overbearing in such repertoire (with the odd felicitous exception). Simon Keenlyside, however, joins the ranks of such singers as Thomas Allen in knowing exactly how to deliver such songs, shading down the voice, for instance when necessary. Scarlett Strallen partners Keenlyside in duets and sings two numbers on her own. They are joined by David Charles Abell, a musician steeped in the tradition of musical theatre, who conducts the BBC Concert Orchestra the original orchestral arrangements, a number of which have been specially restored for this recording.

KHACHATURIAN/PROKOFIEV PIANO CONCERTOS Nareh Arghamanyan, Ruundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, Alain Altogluu/PentaTone PTC 5186 510 SACD  (N.B. Graham Williams’ review of this disc appears elsewhere)This is the first appearance in the surround sound medium for the Khachaturian piano concerto, and it is generally a splendid performance – without, perhaps, the last ounce of dynamism to be found in (for instance) the Chandos recording of this piece by Constantine Orbellian (stereo only). Fewer reservations about the dynamic take on the Prokofiev 3rd, which is delivered with something close to the requisite amount of panache.