Graham Williams Reviews

More Copland from Chandos

COPLAND: ORCHESTRAL WORKS 3, BBC Philharmonic, John Wilson Chandos SACD CHSA 5195   John Wilson’s comprehensive survey of the orchestral works of Aaron Copland for Chandos has now reached its third Volume and like the earlier issues this one brings authoritative accounts of three of the composer’s lesser performed works and one of his most popular, performed here with typical brilliance by the BBC Philharmonic and captured in vivid multi-channel sound on SACD. The opening item on the disc is a performance of the delightfully carefree and energetic ‘An Outdoor Overture’ that Copland wrote in 1938 for the New York High School of Music and Art whilst simultaneously working on his ballet ‘Billy the Kid’. Continue reading

GRANDISSIMA GRAVITA

GRANDISSIMA GRAVITA, Brecon Baroque, Rachel Podger/Challange Classics CCS SA 39217  Discerning collectors and lovers of the baroque violin in particular already know that every release from Rachel Podger and her accomplished colleagues in the period instrument group Brecon Baroque is always worth investigating. Podger’s combination of probing musical intelligence and joyous virtuosity makes each issue one to savour. This is especially true of her latest disc in which she performs sonatas by Vivaldi, Tartini, Veracini and Pisendel – four composers who were not only close contemporaries but are also linked by their indebtedness and admiration for the musical inventiveness and originality of Arcangelo Corelli. The disc opens with Vivaldi’s Sonata for violin and continuo in A major, Op.2 No. 2, one of the set of twelve sonatas written by the composer in 1709. This is a short but beguiling piece in which the contribution of members of Brecon Baroque – Daniele Caminiti (lute and guitar), Alison McGillivray (cello) and Marcin Świątkiewicz (harpsichord) – is as delightful and imaginative as that of the soloist. The “Grandissima Gravita” title for this disc is provided by the four minor key sonatas that follow.
Tartini’s Sonata in A minor Op.2 No.5 opens with a richly expressive ‘Andante Cantabile’ that allows the eloquence of Podger’s playing to hold the listener entranced throughout its eight minutes duration. The two well-contrasted sonatas by Veracini, in G minor and D minor respectively, are beautifully nuanced in the more reflective movements by these performers while there is plenty of rhythmic bounce in the more lively ones. The fourth sonata on this disc is by Johann Georg Pisendel the German violinist and composer who for many years led the Court Orchestra in Dresden. Pisendel was much admired by Vivaldi, Albinoni and Telemann all of whom dedicated violin concertos to him. The four-movement ‘Sonata for violin and harpsichord in C minor’ notable for the improvisatory nature of the opening ‘Adagio’ and the grave tranquillity of the ‘Affetuoso ‘ third movement, is given a typically engaging and fluent performance in which Podger is ably supported by Marcin Świątkiewicz and Alison McGillivray. Continue reading

New from Challenge, Hyperion & Capriccio

GRIEG: Piano Concerto; INCIDENTAL MUSIC TO ‘PEER GYNT’, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet / Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra / Edward Gardner/Chandos SACD CHSA 5190  For admirers of the composer Grieg, there is an argument for having his complete incidental music to Ibsen’s Peer Gynt – but it is to be hoped that this consideration will not steer them away from the very generous selection included here (much more than in the familiar suites). Chandos and Gardner give us virtually all the important music that Grieg composed for the play. The score is given an extremely winning and characterful performance by Edward Gardner, who has rapidly established himself as one of the most important conductors to record regularly for the Chandos label. What’s more, this Peer Gynt is accompanied by a particularly distinctive performance of the composer’s other signature work, the warhorse that is  the Piano Concerto, and the wonderfully blooming surround sound recording does full justice to both works These keenly idiomatic performances of the most famous works by Grieg are superbly captured in exemplary Chandos surround sound.

TIPPETT: SYMPHONIES ONE & TWO, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Martyn Brabbins/Hyperion CDA 68203  Admirers may wonders if Michael Tippett’s operas will ever come back into fashion – their pursuit of the then-‘hip’ and fashionable rendered them instantly dated even as they appeared. For all their virtues, works such as The Ice Break are a salutary reminder that timelessness rather than trendiness is a more apposite choice for musical longevity. Such considerations, however, hardly apply to the composer’s superbly crafted symphonies which are here given fresh and vital new readings by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins in a recording that does full justice to the quirky and unusual nature of the composer’s orchestration. In the famous rivalry between Tippett and his contemporary Britten (the tenor Robert Tear told me that there was little love lost between the two men), it is the music of Britten that has the greater hold on the repertory. These highly impressive performance may help put Tippett’s symphonies back on the musical map.

MARTINŮ: Early Orchestral Works, Volume Three: Vanishing Midnight; Ballade (after Böcklin’s picture Villa by the Sea); Dream of the Past, Sinfonia Varsovia, Ian Hobson/Toccata TOCC 0414   Those not signed up to an admiration society of the composer Martinů may be prepared to concede that his symphonies (and such pieces as the Double Concerto) are unquestionably top drawer, but some dismiss much of his other music as efficient note-spinning. Those naysayers will no doubt apply such strictures to the collection on this record, but admirers of Martinů will be grateful that these three under-regarded pieces have been committed to disc in performances brimming with affection. Ballade (after Böcklin’s picture Villa by the Sea) is a particular pleasure here, and it is interesting to see a piece inspired by the painter which is something other than his celebrated Isle of the Dead, which memorably inspired Rachmaninov’s tone poem.

WEINBERG: Violin Concerto; KABALEVSKY: Piano Fantasy; Cello Concerto No. 1, Benjamin Schmid, Claire Huangci, Harriet Krijgh, ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, Cornelius Meister/Capriccio B077BQGBT1  There is a provocative mix of Soviet composers on this expertly played disc – two musicians who underwent very different experiences under the oppressive Stalin regime that ruined the lives of so many of their peers. Kabalevsky, more adroit at passing through the requisite hoops, escaped largely unscathed, but Weinberg (not least for his Jewishness in a notably anti-Semitic era) had his wings clipped – which makes his an astonishingly prodigious output under these circumstances all the more impressive. Listening to the various pieces on this disc makes it clear that Weinberg is the more accomplished of the two composers, although both wrote music full of invention and character. The more substantial work, Weinberg’s Violin Concerto, is given an extremely authoritative reading here.

SHOSTAKOVICH: Violin Sonata, 24 Preludes (arr. violin and piano), Sergei Dogadin, Violin, Nikolai Tokarev, Piano/Naxos C5310  If one were to attempt any ‘innocent ear’ test with the transcription of Shostakovich’s piano Preludes to be found on this disc, the listener might consider that these pieces were written for precisely the forces utilised here, i.e. violin and piano. And while this new version does not unseat the composer’s original thoughts, it makes for a fascinating alternative to the piano-only original. Dmitri Shostakovich’s succinctly composed and highly distinctive 24 Preludes have proved their popularity in numerous arrangements, but when the composer heard these transcriptions by Dmitry Tsyganov he declared that ‘I forgot they were originally written for piano, so naturally did they sound.’ The set was completed in 2000 by the Russian-born composer and pianist Lera Auerbach. These often whimsical and ironic Preludes contrast greatly with the chilling and profound Violin Sonata, a late work that concludes with Shostakovich’s last ever use of passacaglia form.

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: SONGS OF TRAVEL, etc., James Gilchrist / Philip Dukes / Anna Tilbrook/Chandos 10969   Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel have been particularly lucky on disc, both in its voice-and-piano version and in the later orchestral transcription. It is the former which is given an airing here, and while James Gilchrist’s adroit performance does not unseat some distinctive readings of the past, Gilchrist is nevertheless able to find all the nuances in both Robert Louis Stevenson’s text and Vaughan Williams’ impeccable rendering of the same. In fact RVW admirers may be attracted by the disc’s fill-ups, which consist of several other pieces by the composer in effective performances. Having championed British repertoire together for the past twenty years, Anna Tilbrook and James Gilchrist are joined by Philip Dukes in a lyrical journey through some of Vaughan Williams’s best songs and rarely heard chamber music.

R. STRAUSS: DER ROSENKAVALIER, Camilla Nylund, Peter Rose, Paula Murrihy, Netherlands Philharmonic orchestra Mark Albrecht Challenge Classics SACD While the great Rosenkavalier readings of the past (notably Solti and Karajan) are not unseated by this new contender, it is still a strong and characterful addition (in vivid surround sound) to the long list of recordings of Strauss’s glorious opera. The three principal soloists (while variable) find many of the nuances of the character sometimes elided in otherwise top drawer performances. And the sense of stage drama is pointed up at various important junctures. Hardly a definitive reading, but which performance of the Rosenkavalier is?

RAAFF: Violin Concerto/Symphony No.1, Tasmin Little, Radio Filharmonisch Orkest conductor Jaap van Zweeden/Etcetera Records KTC1593   Do you consider yourself an adventurous classical music aficionado? If so, here is a disc which is well worth your time – particularly given the fact that the violinist Tasmin Little applies her considerable skills to this unfamiliar music and makes the best possible case for it. De Raaff is of the generation of Dutch composers who emerged in the nineties. In 1999 De Raaff had the special privilege of being invited to work as George Benjamin’s only composition student at the Royal College of Music in London where he also studied with Julian Anderson. The very word concerto naturally calls up automatic associations with the Classic and Romantic musical traditions. If, however, there is one composition that does not fit this classical template, it is de Raaff’s Violin Concerto. Tasmin Little’s performances are non-pareil.

BRITISH CONCERTANTE ,Various orchestras, Gavin Sutherland, Barry Wordsworth/Heritage Records HTGCD191  For many years, British light music was held in relatively low regard, despite the fact that even the slightest investigation of the field discloses music of real invention and charm, taking it well beyond the ‘easy listening’ category. And here is a collection to make that point. British Concertante features orchestral music written for soloist and accompaniment composed by leading figures in the Light Music movement: Angela Morley (equally creative as when Morley was known as Wally Stott), Bryan Kelly, Francis Chagrin, Philip Spratley and David Lyon.

COPLAND: ORCHESTRAL WORKS, VOL. 3, BBC Philharmonic / John Wilson/Chandos SACD CHSA 5195  There are those (including this this listener ) who would prefer Copland’s original thoughts and prefer his ‘Organ’ Symphony, which has a heft and a dramatic power somewhat reduced in the composer’s later transcription to standard forces recorded here. What’s more, John Wilson has already given us an impressive performance of the former piece. Nevertheless, if your taste is for the orchestral version alone, you are unlikely to find it performed with more dedication and musicianship than here. An invigorating programme of orchestral works by Copland, the third volume in John Wilson’s already widely praised exploration, featuring in particular the First Symphony and the lively Outdoor Overture. (See also Graham Williams’ review opposite)

Forthcoming from PENTATONE

On the horizon from PENTATONE are new recordings of Mendelssohn’s Fourth and Fifth symphonies by Andrew Manze, along with an intriguing disc of Hindemith orchestral music from Marek Janowski. Both, it can be anticipated, will shine in the company’s splendid SACD surround sound.

Brownridge’s Debussy & Other New Discs

DEBUSSY: PRÉLUDES BOOK 1 & BOOK 1; L’ISLE JOYEUSE, Angela Brownridge, piano/ Challenge Classics SACD CC72727  One of the greatest virtues of the SACD medium has been its notable faithfulness in reproducing the full range of the sound of the piano, often making early keyboard discs – particularly those in the predigital medium – sound (retrospectively) a touch on the constricted side. And if ever the complete spectrum of the piano was required by one composer’s music, it is in the masterpieces of Debussy. Recorded in truly authoritative performances by the talented Angela Brownridge, this disc represents the third release from the pianist on Challenge Classics. She presents here some of the cornerstones of Debussy’s creative output. Hailed as a major star in classical music, Brownridge has been compared with such pianists as the legendary Solomon, Rachmaninov, Cherkassky, and Bolet. This Debussy disc represents the apogee of her achievement.

SHOSTAKOVICH: THE GADFLY† Complete Original Score for the 1955 Film, Reconstructed by Mark Fitz-Gerald

THE COUNTERPLAN (excerpts) Bachchor Mainz • Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz, Mark Fitz-Gerald/Naxos 8.573747 †WORLD PREMIÈRE RECORDING  Most Shostakovich admirers will be familiar with the suite from his film score The Gadfly, and like most film music by the composer – at least that which has been widely recorded – it’s music with an intriguing mix of styles but with an emphasis on lighter, more accessible compositional techniques. Finally, however, we have a chance to hear the entire score. Given the best possible advocacy by the Bachchor Mainz and the Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz, under Mark Fitz-Gerald  Set in mid-nineteenth-century Italy during a turbulent period of pre-Unifi cation political unrest, The Gadfl y drew from Shostakovich one of his most popular film scores, heard hitherto on record only in the version arranged and re-orchestrated by Levon Atovmian. This recording presents the full, original score for the first time, as closely as possible to Shostakovich’s original conception. Reconstructed by Mark Fitz-Gerald from the original manuscript and the Russian film soundtrack, it calls for a large orchestra including church bells, an organ, two guitars and a mandolin, all excluded from the Atovmian suite. The excerpts from The Counterplan, which marked the fifteenth anniversary of the 1917 Revolution, include the infectious hit-tune The Song of the Counterplan.

ELGAR: FALSTAFF, ETC., Roderick Williams, BBC Philharmonic, Sir Andrew Davis/Chandos CHSA 5188 SACD  Given the amount of time that the surround sound medium has been with us, it’s hardly surprising that the bulk of the classic orchestral repertoire has found its way onto disc in this format, particularly the large-scale late 19th and early 20th century orchestral scores that clearly benefit so much from the extra dimensional sound. There have, however, been holdouts – strange omissions from the recorded repertoire — but they are gradually being filled. Take, for instance, Elgar’s masterpiece. Falstaff — which has now found its way onto disc and (one can say with some certainty) in a performance that does full justice to the composer’s orchestral mastery. Earlier readings by such conductors as Adrian Boult may have found a touch more nuance, but very few have the full-blooded swagger of this new reading. Sir Andrew Davis takes his multi-award-winning Elgar discography to the next level with this Falstaff, Elgar’s most accomplished and characteristic work, and several orchestral songs, with exemplary support from the BBC Philharmonic and Roderick Williams.

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: A LONDON SYMPHONY & OTHER WORKS, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Martyn Brabbins/HYPERION CDA68190   If you’re confused by the variety of readings of Vaughan Williams’ ode to the metropolis, his great Second Symphony, in its various iterations, you are not alone. Many thought that the issue of which of the composer’s versions to listen to was solved with Richard Hickox’s groundbreaking interpretation of the piece which restored missing passages, but newer versions – such as this impressive performance – have muddied the waters further. Vaughan Williams’s London Symphony (the composer’s favourite of the nine) makes a rare appearance in its 1920 first publication. Three lesser-known works complete a highly desirable programme, while Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Symphony Orchestra understand how this music should be played like few others.

SCHUMANN:SYMPHONIES 1-4, San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas/SFS Media SACD  To say that the competition in recordings of the symphonies of Schumann is steep is to somewhat understate the case — recent performances have included the impressively detailed readings by Robin Ticciati. But it is hardly surprising that this set by Michael Tilson Thomas joins – at a stroke — the upper echelons of the pack. Recorded live at Davies Symphony Hall during the 2015-16 season, the album offers a nuanced approach that accentuates the lyrical and tender elements of the composer’s orchestral masterpieces. Released in a deluxe two-album hardbound SACD set, it includes an 88-page booklet with extended notes, photos, and an essay on performing Schumann by Michael Tilson Thomas. It is also available digitally for streaming and download in stereo, 5.1 surround, iTunes quality, and 24-bit/192kHz Studio Master.

BARTÓK: ORCHESTRAL WORKS, James Ehnes / Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra / Edward Gardner/Chandos CHSA 5189 SACD  The recordings of the conductor Edward Gardner are unquestionably among the jewels in the Chandos Records diadem, and his prolific series of discs for the label are showing a welcome emphasis on striking 20th-century scores — such as this very attractive Bartok coupling. If earlier readings of these astonishing pieces are not quite unseated (Solti, Fischer), there is no denying Gardner’s achievement – particularly in the SACD sound accorded the conductor’s full-blooded interpretation. Four years after a highly successful Bartók recording with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Gardner here returns to the composer, with his Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and James Ehnes, for outstanding accounts of four major orchestral works.

LAJTHA: CAPRICCIO, OP. 39 – SUITE DE BALLET, Pécs Symphony Orchestra, Nicolás Pasquet/NAXOS 8.573649  Slowly but surely, the Naxos label has been reissuing the impressive series of discs of Lajtha’s neglected music which were originally available on the Marco Polo label. Now, finally, the reissue programme is complete, with one of the most attractive entries in the series. László Lajtha is recognised, along with Bartók, Kodály and Dohnányi, as one of the great Hungarian composers of the first half of the 20th century. He established his reputation as his country’s foremost symphonist but also showed a strong affinity for the stage, writing his one-act ballet Capriccio in 1944. Despite the darkness of the times the ballet is filled with light and set in the period around 1700, the age of Watteau. Taking commedia dell’arte as his model, Lajtha’s characterisation brims with wit and elegance.

BRAUNFELS: CARNIVAL OVERTURE, OP. 22; TWO HÖLDERLIN SONGS, OP. 27; SCOTTISH FANTASY, OP. 47; PRELUDE AND FUGUE, OP. 36, Barbara Buntrock, Paul Armin Edelmann, Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz, Gregor Bühl/Capriccio C5308  To many listeners, the name of the composer Walter Braunfels will be unfamiliar, but his colourful late romantic/modern scores fully deserve the excavation they have been receiving lately. If this disc does not offer the revelations that earlier recordings have accorded us, it is still an attractive (if slight) collection.

MAHLER SYMPHONY NO. 8, Utah Symphony Orchestra, Thierry Fischer, Music Director, Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Reference Recordings SACD FR 725  It will hardly come as a revelation to those who have been collecting earlier Reference Recordings discs of the great masterpieces of the orchestral repertoire that this new reading of Mahler’s monumental Eighth Symphony is so impressive. Apart from anything else, it takes rigorous, ambitious recording standards, such as those considered de rigueur by the company, to do justice to an all-encompassing, sprawling score such as this, and within a few bars – the opening peroration for organ, orchestra and chorus – it’s clear that both the musical and recording values are (as usual) firmly in place. The singing, too, is mostly nonpareil (counterintuitively, no trace of religiosity in the weighty Mormon Tabernacle Choir) and this is as impressive a reading of the Symphony of a Thousand as one is likely to find.

BRITISH VIOLIN CONCERTOS, Clare Howick, violin, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Grant Llewellyn/Naxos 8.573791  No undiscovered masterpieces here, but extremely professional music which features three major British concertos spanning 70 years. Kenneth Leighton’s Concerto is a work of tensile urgency, scored with great imagination, and the Concerto by Gordon Jacob contains at its heart a threnodic slow movement cast in long, moving paragraphs and accompanied by poetic effects. Written for (and premiered by) the soloist in this recording, Paul Patterson’s Violin Concerto No. 2 (‘Serenade’) is rich in high spirits; songlike, and exuberantly sparkling. Clare Howick performs these works with finesse, and is accompanied by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Grant Llewellyn

PROKOFIEV: SYMPHONIES 2 & 3, State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia, Vladimir Jurowksi/PentaTone PTC 518 6624  In the kind of impactful sound that we have come to expect from the PentaTone label, these are dramatic and energetic performances of the two symphonies that followed Prokofiev’s calling card Classical Symphony. The reliable Vladimir Jurowksi gives highly persuasive readings which almost rival (while not surpassing) the recent surround sound takes on the symphonies by Mariss Janson, and there is no questioning that they are serious contenders in their own right.

BRASS HERALDS: BACH HANDEL TELEMANN, German Brass Berlin Classics030 1005 BC  For those listeners with a taste for the sound of burnished brass, this collection will be seventh heaven, with writing for brass instruments from three masters: Bach, Handel and Telemann, showcased in performances that are impeccably musical. Some may find the aural palette a touch restricted after a few tracks, but these two discs are not necessarily designed to be listened to in sequence; small samplings will give much pleasure.

BENNETT: ORCHESTRAL WORKS, VOL. 1, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / John Wilson Chandos CHSA 5202

While the music here may not be to every taste (and it is certainly not as instantly ingratiating as the film music by the composer) this new series, devoted to the orchestral works of the late Sir Richard Rodney Bennett is of note. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and its Associate Guest Conductor, John Wilson are recording for the first time together on Chandos, and the disc features the knotty Third Symphony. If the virtuosic Marimba Concerto outstays its welcome, it is tackled here with verve by the percussionist Colin Currie.

SCHUMANN: PIANO SONATA NO. 1 IN F SHARP MINOR, ETC. Adam Golka, piano/FHR 62  These are performances of poetry and sensitivity, with the reading of the piano sonata rivalling some of the great discs of the past. Adam Golka is joined by the soprano Lauren Eberwein, an artist of subtle skill, on An Anna II, and a particularly delicate reading is given of all the music here, which is perhaps not as familiar as it should be.

DECCA’S PREMIERE RECORDING OF STRAVINSKY PIECE

DECCA HAS UNVEILED THE WORLD PREMIERE RECORDING OF STRAVINSKY’S NEWLY-DISCOVERED FUNERAL SONG:  RICCARDO CHAILLY’S DEBUT ALBUM WITH LUCERNE FESTIVAL ORCHESTRA. It will also include a new recording of The Rite of Spring. It will be released on 12 January 2018