Graham Williams Reviews

Superlative Tchaikovsky, Khachaturian from Chandos

TCHAIKOVSKY: PIANO CONCERTO NO. 2/KHACHATURIAN: PIANO CONCERTO, Xiayin Wang (piano), Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Peter Oundjian/CHANDOS SACD CHSA 5167  I was hugely impressed by the Chinese American pianist Xiayin Wang on her debut disc for the Chandos label of three piano concertos by American composers. Now having had a year’s break from her concert schedule to start a family she returns with a stunning SACD of two concertos that though composed by familiar names are not heard that often in the concert hall. This disc confirms her as a pianist who combines virtuosity with consummate sensitivity, qualities required in different degrees for the execution of both of these somewhat neglected concertos. The Tchaikovsky 2nd Piano Concerto is performed in its original version, free of the disfiguring cuts that are thankfully rarely made in performances these days, so the the grandeur and scale of this formidable work is fully retained. From the opening orchestral flourish it is clear that the contribution from Peter Oundjian and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra is going to be worthy of the dazzling pianism on offer, and so it proves. Whether in the tuttis or accompanying the soloist in quiet passages the cultivated playing, especially from the woodwind section, is a major factor in the success of Wang’s account of this monumental work. In the gorgeous slow movement, one of Tchaikovsky’s most imaginative creations, the delicacy of Wang’s playing is beautifully matched by that of Maya Iwabuchi (violin) and Aleksei Kiseliov (cello). Xiayin Wang revels in the high spirits of the finale with playing that abounds with charm and flair. The recording is rich and detailed in the usual Chandos style, but the piano is more naturally balanced and integrated with the orchestra than on Denis Matsuev’s equally fine, though differently coupled, version of this concerto on the Mariinsky label. The coupling here is the Piano Concerto of Aram Khachaturian, his sole venture in this genre, and this too is a winner. The only competition on SACD is from Nareh Arghamanyan on Pentatone, and enjoyable though that performance was, I would venture that this one is even more exciting simply because Xiayin Wang fully embraces the work’s brashness with more uninhibited playing. Arguably another advantage of this Chandos release is the use of a flexatone in the slow movement as specified in the score. On the Pentatone version a musical saw is used which, while effective, did not provide quite the eerie sound that the composer probably had in mind. Again the sound is first-rate and those seeking a coupling of these works need not hesitate.

Exuberant Ibert from Chandos

IBERT: OUVERTURE DE FETE; ESCALES; BACCHANALE; DIVERTISSEMENT; HOMMAGE A MOZART; FEERIQUE; SARABANDE POUR DULCINÉE; PARIS, SUITE SYMPHONIQUE POUR ORCHESTRE, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Neeme Järvi/Chandos CHSA 5168  This new survey from Chandos of the instantly appealing and inventive orchestral music of Jacques Ibert (1890-1962), delivered here in high resolution multichannel sound, will be welcomed by those who have enjoyed Neeme Järvi’s four previous companion discs for this label of works by Massenet, Chabrier, Offenbach and Saint-Säens. On this vividly recorded SACD, Järvi and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande perform a varied selection of eight of the composer’s works written between 1922 to 1956, some of which are rarely heard in the concert hall. Continue reading

From Czech Symphonies to American Opera: Graham Williams reviews


DVORAK: SYMPHONIES 7 & 8, Houston Symphony, Andrés Orozco-Estrada/PENTATONE SACD PTC 5186 578  It is understandable that PENTATONE would wish to mark the signing of their new star maestro Andrés Orozco-Estrada with a release to showcase his considerable musical and interpretive talents, so a coupling of two of Dvorak’s most popular symphonies would therefore seem to be a good choice for this purpose. There is, however, the problem of the existing competition to consider. Currently on SACD alone there are no less than 12 versions of the Symphony No.7 in D minor and an astonishing 21 versions of the Symphony No.8 in G major, not to mention the many recommendable recordings on CD, while the current PENTATONE catalogue already boasts fine accounts of these two symphonies by the late Yakov Kreizberg and the Netherlands PO. Having both symphonies on a single disc lasting 76’34” is certainly a plus point, but it is clear that any newcomer to an over-crowded catalogue needs to offer some illuminating point of view to warrant the attention of collectors. As is the case with all great masterpieces these works invite differing interpretative stances from conductors. In both these symphonies Orozco-Estrada adopts a musical approach that is refreshingly straightforward and direct in manner with generally steady speeds – though he never lets the music drag or become ponderous – and with a warm expressiveness that allows Dvorak’s music to speak for its self. Orozco-Estrada’s middle-of-the-road accounts, that while never matching the urgency or electric intensity of say Manfred Honeck in his recent recording of the 8th Symphony, are unencumbered by mannerisms that can become irritating on repeated listening. Whether this is enough to trump the competition is for each listener to judge for themselves. The Houston Symphony respond to their newly appointed Music director with unfailingly polished playing. Orchestral textures are satisfyingly rich with solid weighty brass, supple woodwind and keen strings all vividly captured in the splendidly rich 5.0 DSD recordings made by the capable team of Mark Donahue, John Newton and Dirk Sobotka. The two symphonies on this SACD were recorded live a year apart (April 2014 for Symphony No. 7 and March 2015 for No. 8) at the Jesse H Jones Hall for the Performing Arts, Houston, Texas. These scrupulously prepared and finally executed accounts of two of Dvorak’s finest symphonies can be confidently recommended to those seeking this particular coupling even in what is clearly a very competitive field.

LUTOSŁAWSKI: CONCERTO FOR ORCHESTRA, BRAHMS G MINOR PIANO QUINTET (ORCH. SCHOENBERG), Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, Miguel Harth-Bedoya/ Harmonia Mundi SACD HMU 807668  The Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra and its Peruvian conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya made a most favourable impression accompanying Vadym Kholodenko in his recent recording of Prokofiev’s 2nd and 5th Piano Concertos and on this new recording they show their mettle in accounts of Lutosławski’s brilliant Concerto for Orchestra and Schoenberg’s orchestration of the Brahms G minor Piano Quintet. Though this is an unusual pair of works to be coupled together on disc the quality of both the performances and the recorded sound on this SACD make it worth serious consideration by collectors seeking a recording of either one or both of these pieces. The Lutosławski work has already received three recordings on SACD, but from the opening bars one is gripped here by the fiery and incisive playing of the FWSO and the steady forward momentum that Harth-Bedoya engenders in the ‘Allegro maestoso’ of the opening ‘Intrada’. The movement’s climax around 4.04 is delivered with tremendous punch, and for once the presence of the ominously ticking celesta that leads to the movement’s quiet conclusion is not subsumed by the rest of the orchestra. In the tricky ‘Capriccio notturno ed Arioso’ the players nimbly articulate the scurrying string passages with notable precision, and in each of the three sections of the finale – ‘Passacaglia, Toccata e Corale’ – demonstrate their virtuosity guided by Harth-Bedoya’s firm and clear sighted direction. The performance of the Brahms/ Schoenberg is equally impressive with generally well chosen tempi; though for the third movement (marked ‘Andante con moto’) a timing of 11.35 may, for some, be a fraction too expansive. But such is the eloquence of the playing it seemed just perfect, and thanks to the up-front recorded sound there is a lovely combination of Brahmsian warmth and clarity of detail throughout. Needless to say Harth-Bedoya and his players really let their hair down in the final ‘Rondo alla zingarese’. Brad Michel’s DSD recording, though closely balanced, has exceptional clarity with plenty of air around the instruments and terrific impact from the percussion section in both works. I did, however, notice the presence of a low frequency hum in the Brahms/Schoenberg work. This was only audible in silences and at the end of movements and did not unduly affect my enjoyment of the performance.In all respects this unusual but satisfying programme deserves a warm recommendation.

SCHUMANN: PIANO CONCERTO/MENDELSSOHN: PIANO CONCERTO NO. 1; MÄRCHEN VON DER SCHÖNEN MELUSINE, OP. 32 (THE FAIR MELUSINA) (1835 VERSION), Ingrid Fliter (piano), Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Antonio Méndez/Linn CKD 555 SACD  Ingrid Fliter’s previous two releases for the Linn label showed her to be a pianist of considerable elegance and refinement. Both featured the works of Chopin, a composer central to her repertoire, but here she performs piano concertos written by two German composers who were contemporaries, friends and colleagues – Schumann and Mendelssohn. Fliter is partnered in both works by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra directed by the young Spanish conductor Antonio Méndez. There are countless recordings on disc of the Schumann Piano Concerto in widely differing interpretive styles to suit all tastes, so how to characterise Ingrid Fliter’s performance of this enduring masterpiece? The brisk delivery of the descending passage in chords at the opening of the ‘Allegro affetuoso’ indicates that this is to be a performance of eagerness and considerable energy and so it proves. In all three movements the pianist seems reluctant to linger (even in the cadenza) and assiduously avoids any risk of over romanticising the music. The benefits of having an orchestra of 37 players are immediately apparent in the clarity of Schumann’s wind writing, while the use of natural trumpets and horns add spice to the orchestral accompaniment.
Even better is the sparkling account of Mendelssohn’s youthful 1st Piano Concerto that elicits a performance of dazzling pianism from Fliter. The zest of her playing in the outer movements almost leaves the listener breathless yet she brings a corresponding calmness to the lovely central ‘Andante’ where the scoring of the main theme for bassoons, horns and low strings sounds especially gorgeous on this recording.Placed between the two concerto performances on this disc is a vivid performance of Mendelssohn’s Overture ‘The Fair Melusina’. This was composed in 1834, but in spite of being a favourite with the composer it remains one of the least familiar of his overtures. The story of a water sprite under a curse and her marriage to a mortal knight has obvious parallels with Dvorak’s opera Rusalka. Mendelssohn, however, does not attempt to depict the events of the story, but rather its oceanic aura. Méndez directs a pellucid and spirited account of this piece full of stylish playing from the SCO. A performance of Mendelssohn’s ‘Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage’ is also available as a free download, though why this was not included on a disc lasting 61 min. is not explained. The clean quality of the recording on this SACD matches the excellence of the performances, thanks not only to the efforts of the recording team (Philip Hobbs and Robert Cammidge) but also to the spacious acoustic of Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall that adds a pleasing ambience to the bright sound. Altogether a lovely disc that will further enhance the reputation of this gifted and charismatic pianist.

FLOYD: WUTHERING HEIGHTS, Soloists, Florentine Opera Company Chorus, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Joseph Mechavich/Reference FR-721 (2 discs) SACD  America’s foremost living opera composer Carlisle Floyd has just celebrated his 90th birthday and, to his credit, is still continuing to compose new operas. Floyd entitles Wuthering Heights, the work under consideration, as ‘a musical drama in a prologue and three Acts with dramatisation and text by the composer after the novel by Emily Brontë’. In the liner notes with these discs he writes that he is of the opinion that this opera is one of his best, both in text and music – a view with which many may concur having heard this compelling world premier recording on the Reference Recordings Fresh! label. Floyd’s first major opera ‘Susannah’ was a huge success when it was staged in New York in September1956 a few months after its world premier in Tallahassee, making him one of the most highly regarded American opera composers of his generation. Following this success Floyd went on to compose Wuthering Heights (1957-58), a commission from the Santa Fe Opera. Initially the work received some scathing criticism resulting in the composer making major revisions to both the music and the libretto and it is this revised version that is recorded on these two SACDs. To set Emily Brönte’s classic tale of ill-fated love and revenge to music is an ambitious project for any composer to undertake, something Bernard Herrmann discovered when after eight years of toil he eventually completed his opera of the same name in 1951. For much of the work Floyd writes in an expressive parlando style that allows the words to be clearly heard even when the voices are competing with large orchestral forces. The dark brooding orchestral score is, even allowing for the tragic nature of the story, mellifluous and often lushly romantic in the style of Puccini and Samuel Barber as, for example, in Edgar’s aria “Then marry me Cathy and make me whole again” (Act 2 Scene 2 ) ardently delivered by tenor Vale Rideout. Floyd’s confident handling of his orchestral palette and his ability to create atmosphere is clear from the start where the doleful horns that open the work immediately capture the bleakness of the North Yorkshire moor setting. It would be hard to imagine a more committed and much better sung performance than that given here by the Florentine Opera Company, one that has the imprimatur of the composer. The casting of the principal roles is very strong and led by the the soprano Georgia Jarman as Cathy and the baritone Kelly Markgraf as Heathcliff. Jarman’s gleaming soprano has the power to ride over the orchestra when required, but she can also sing with great tenderness and her impassioned portrayal of the opera’s tragic heroine is wonderfully expressive throughout. Kelly Markgraf is a commanding and virile sounding Heathcliff whose rhapsodic account of “Was there ever another place in all the world like this!” (Act 1 Scene1) makes him the epitome of the romantic hero. The singers of the supporting roles generally don’t disappoint, with Susanne Mentzer (Nelly) and Heather Buck (Isabella) worthy of special mention. The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, firmly directed by Joseph Mechavich, does full justice to Floyd’s dramatic score with responsive and vibrant playing sumptuously recorded.
The concert recording took place on January 9th and 11th 2015 at the Sharon Lynne Wilson Centre for the Arts, Harris Theatre, Brookfield, Wisconsin with the composer acting as artistic adviser and the Soundmirror recording team have certainly captured the feel of a staged performance. The recording (5.1 multi channel and 2.0 stereo) was made and post-produced in DSD 256 and is both rich and spacious.  The two discs are supplied in a shrink-wrapped double SACD case with the complete libretto simply placed on top of the box. Use of a slip case would have been advantageous as with nowhere to store it once the wrapping is removed, the libretto could easily be mislaid. Another odd point is that the singers do not always sing the exact words given in the printed libretto which sometimes makes it difficult to follow – no explanation is given for this. I would have also welcomed more cue points, (those provided only come between Scenes) and a less awkward side break between the two discs. These minor quibbles of presentation in no way detract from what is, in every respect, a very fine achievement.


The Russians and others: New CDs & SACDs


TCHAIKOVSKY & GRIEG: PIANO CONCERTOS, Dennis Kozhukin, Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, Vassily Sinaisky/PentaTone PTC 518 6566  In the modern age, certain performances have gone beyond the status of recording classics to become nigh-definitive statements on the works involved, against which all subsequent recordings have to be measured. (A classic example of this is Andre Previn’s earlier RCA recording of Walton’s First Symphony – few subsequent performances were able to match it, not even the conductor’s own underpowered later reading.) Similarly, Martha Argerich’s celebrated DG account of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto has seen off most subsequent rivals in this repertoire, and its sheer élan still makes it a prime contender today. So how does this latest rival from PentaTone compare? It almost goes without saying that in one respect at least, the newcomer scores over its predecessors in the sheer quality of recorded sound, so wide-ranging and nuanced is the PentaTone recording. But such sound issues – while important – must be matched by performance of similar quality, and while Kozhukin may not quite match Argerich’s authority in this most overplayed of warhorses, it is a remarkably persuasive performance. What’s more,  combined with such an exemplary recording, the disc is sure to tempt many listeners – particularly when coupled (as here) with a dramatic reading of another warhorse, the Grieg Concerto. Leaving aside gradations in performances, if you are after these two works in the best modern sound, you need not hesitate. But hang onto that Argerich disc.

OVERTURES FROM THE BRITISH ISLES, VOL. 2: Sir Hubert Parry, Sir Alexander, John Ansell, Dame Ethel, Roger Quilter, John Foulds, Eric Coates, Sir William Walton, Walter Leigh, York Bowen BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Rumon Gamba/CHANDOS CHAN 10898  Familiarity doesn’t necessarily breed contempt, but much as the enthusiast may love playing Ein Heldenleben or Petrushka for the umpteenth time, they sometimes feel the need for some unfamiliar repertoire – and the resulting frisson is precisely what Chandos are providing with this series of British pieces which (the Walton apart) have largely slipped from the repertoire (if they ever held a position in the first place). Rumon Gamba and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales supply a welcome second volume in their excavation of neglected overtures from the British Isles. As Gamba observed: ‘All the overtures on this disc belong to the period between 1890 and 1945. In this present selection, however, we see perhaps even more clearly the evolution of musical style, and in particular the use of harmony, in the armoury of the British composer.’

BURGESS: Mr W.S. – Ballet Suite for Orchestra, Marche pour une revolution, Mr Burgess’s Almanack, Brown University Orchestra, Paul Phillips/NAXOS 8.573472  This writer was once contracted to give a talk at the Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester, and wandering around the campus somewhat lost, I suddenly heard some slightly acerbic music issuing from a doorway – and realised that I had found the Burgess Foundation. Anthony Burgess, celebrated author of A Clockwork Orange, memorably filmed by Stanley Kubrick, once said, “I wish people would think of me as a musician who writes novels, instead of a novelist who writes music on the side.” Initially thwarted in his desire for a professional musical career, Burgess returned to composition in the mid-1970s, writing prolifically in many genres. Essentially, the music is largely of academic interest – Burgess is a far more distinctive novelist than composer – but perhaps deserves investigation. His music is mostly tonal but sometimes dissonant, a hybrid of Holst and Hindemith. Mr W.S. is an imaginative evocation of the Elizabethan era while Mr Burgess’s Almanack is a variegated work of ingenuity and charm with a nod towards modernism. This is the first recording of Burgess’s orchestral music.

RADECKE: ORCHESTRAL WORKS: Overture: Shakespeare’s König Johann’, Op. 25; Symphony in F major, Op. 50; Nachtstück, Op. 55; Zwei Scherzi, Op. 52, Sinfonie Orchester Biel Solothurn, Kaspar Zehnder/CPO  Let’s be honest: there are no neglected masterpieces on offer here, but for those with a taste for more arcane fare, a certain adventurousness may pay dividends. Radecke was a composer whose significant and multifaceted oeuvre contributed significantly to music history in Berlin and Germany. With this release, his romantic music now celebrates its recording premiere on CPO.

WEINBERGER: Overture to a Chivalrous Play; Six Bohemian Songs and Dances; Passacaglia, Jörg Strodthoff, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Gerd Albrecht/Capriccio C5272  Did Jaromir Weinberger, marooned in the US, commit suicide after his failure to consolidate the success of his opera Schwanda the Bagpiper? Whatever the truth, this unusual disc is proof that the composer was more than a one-hit wonder, with some very attractive and colourful music on offer — and given persuasive advocacy.

ALBENIZ: ORCHESTRAL WORKS: Suite Española (arr. Frühbeck de Burgos) / Suite from The Magic Opal / Piano Concerto No. 1 Concierto fantástico / Rapsodia Española (orch. George Enescu), Martin Roscoe (Piano) / BBC Philharmonic / Juanjo Mena/CHANDOS 10897  The enterprising Chandos Spanish Music series (La Música de España, with the BBC Philharmonic and Juanjo Mena) has now embraced Isaac Albéniz, one of the most colourful of Spanish composers. The Suite Española looks forward to the influential great piano collection Iberia, composed two decades later, in which, as Debussy observed, Albéniz ‘put the best of himself’. Lively, energetic readings here, perhaps not matching those by Frühbeck de Burgos.

RAVEL: ORCHESTRATIONS, Orchestre National de Lyon, Leonard Slatkin/ NAXOS: 8573124  Few would dispute Maurice Ravel’s unmatched skill in orchestration, both in his own music and that of other composers. This disc is a prime sampling of the composers skill in that arena, with his command of colour evident both in his own works and in his arrangements of music by others. A further addition to the catalogue of Ravel recordings from Leonard Slatkin and the Orchestre National de Lyon, this disc includes his versions of Chabrier’s vibrant Menuet pompeux, Schumann’s colourful Carnaval and his late friend Debussy’s Sarabande et Danse. Ravel’s iconic orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition vividly depicts scenes ranging from the playful to the macabre

KHACHATURIAN: Symphony No. 2, ‘The Bell’, Lermontov Suite (excerpts), Russian Philharmonic Orchestra, Dmitry Yablonsky/NAXOS 8.570436  There are not many versions of Khachaturian’s Symphony No. 2 in the catalogue, but in terms of giving this music the most dramatic possible reading, this new disc — while highly accomplished – does not unseat the rival reading by Tjeknavorian, still the most striking accorded to the piece. Besides his ever-popular ballet Spartacus (Suites Nos. 1–3 are on Naxos 8.550801), Khachaturian also wrote other stage music, including a splendid score for Boris Lavrenyov’s play about the great Russian author Mikhail Lermontov. The composer described his powerful Second Symphony, written during the final years of World War II, as ’a requiem of wrath, a requiem of protest against war and violence’. At crucial junctures, three tubular bells toll, giving the symphony its memorable subtitle.

RACHMANINOV: ALL-NIGHT VIGIL (VESPERS) London Symphony Orchestra and chorus, Simon Halsey/LSO Live SACD LSO 0781  Andre Previn, mentioned in connection with his Walton recording above, once pointed out with some passion that the unenthusiastic notice given to Rachmaninov in the Grove dictionary of music was severely out of date, given the composer’s re-evaluation as a major figure, and as someone fully of that opinion, I have listened over the years to the composer’s much-loved Vespers, trusting the scales will someday fall from my eyes (or ears) and I will be able to see why so many esteem this piece so highly. But just a few bars of it had me running back to the symphonies and the piano music. It is unquestionably a masterpiece, but the very restricted sound palette ultimately exhausts this listener’s interest. However, that’s my problem, and if you are among the Rachmaninov enthusiasts who love the work, it’s hard to imagine it given a better reading than that delivered by Halsey and his LSO forces.

FRICKER: THE VISION OF JUDGEMENT OP. 29, SYMPHONY NO.5 FOR ORGAN & ORCHESTRA, OP. 74, Jane Manning, soprano • Robert Tear, tenor, Leeds Festival Chorus, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Charles Groves, Gillian Weir, organ, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Colin Davis  This BBC Broadcast (1976) is live from the Festival Hall. first performance. The key work here is Fricker’s cataclysmic Symphony No. 5, premiered by organist Gillian Weir with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Colin Davis in the presence of the composer. It was featured at the Proms on 11th August 1976 with the organist Jennifer Bate and the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra under John Pritchard. Terse and direct, the score offers some grand gestures in its lively outer sections. Fricker was among the first composers in Britain to be influenced by the music of Béla Bartók, Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky, assimilating aspects of their very different styles into a distinctive musical voice of his own.

DAWN TO DUST: Works by Augusta Read Thomas, Nico Muhly, and Andrew Norman, The Utah Symphony, Thierry Fisacher/Reference SACD FR-719  Some unusual world premiere recordings here of pieces commissioned by the Utah Symphony. The level of invention is high in these works by leading composers Augusta Read Thomas, Nico Muhly, and Andrew Norman (percussionist Colin Currie performs on Andrew Norman’s “Switch.”) The Utah Symphony, celebrating its 75th anniversary in the 2015-16 season, is one of America’s major symphony orchestras and here delivers adventurous fare.

SHOSTAKOVICH, MATTHEWS: Piano Quintets, Villiers Quartet et al/Somm B01C5PTVTI  It’s a measure of David Matthews’ achievement that this recording of his cheerful piano quintet is able to sit neatly alongside Shostakovich’s masterpiece and more than hold its own. Matthews wrote his Piano Quintet in 2004 as an engagement present for his wife Jenifer, so in his view, its overall happy mood is appropriate. The composer notes in the CD: When I wrote a piano quartet in 1995 I called it A Song and Dance Sketchbook because I didn’t want to follow the classical formal scheme, but also to acknowledge that each of its six movements was either a song or a dance. In this Piano Quintet I chose to adhere, more or less, to the traditional scheme: four movements, with a scherzo and a slow movement in the middle. The song and dance element, however, remains just as predominant.’ Both works are authoritatively performed here.

RACHMANINOV: COMPLETE PIANO WORKS BY EARL WILD VOL. 2, Giovanni Doria Miglietta/Piano Classics  If you are an aficionado of the piano music of Rachmaninov and have every note of it, here is fare that will not necessarily be familiar. The second instalment of Rachmaninov’s complete piano Works by Earl Wild is a reminder that Wild (1915‐2010) was without doubt one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century. His immense repertoire, his staggering virtuosity, his warmth and his charm deserve him the epithet legendary. Wild was a great improviser as well, and he frequently played his own fantasies in his concerts. Fortunately he transcribed these pieces, and his creative legacy contains a wealth of transcriptions, fantasies and paraphrases, as well as original piano works. This CD features the complete recording of Wild’s famous transcriptions of Rachmaninov songs.

TCHAIKOVSKY: SYMPHONY NO. 6 IN B MINOR, OP. 74, DVOŘÁK: RUSALKA FANTASY (arr. Honeck/Ille), Manfred Honeck, Pittsburgh Symphony/REFRENCE SACD FR-720  While there may be umpteen recordings (even in the surround sound medium) of the Tchaikovsky symphony on offer here, we are given a truly exemplary reading – and what makes Honeck’s disc particularly attractive is the companion piece, a sumptuous recording of orchestral passages from Dvorak’s Rusalka arranged in the form of a splendid suite by the conductor – and that alone makes this disc particularly attractive for enthusiasts. In the best possible audiophile sound, Reference gives us Tchaikovsky’s last (completed) symphony, of which the composer said: “I absolutely consider it to be the best, and in particular, the most sincere of all my creations. I love it as I have never loved any of my other musical offspring.”

Erik NORDGREN: The Bergman Suites Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra Adriano/Naxos 8573370   In his later films, Ingmar Bergman was to eschew conventional scores, other than the use of either Bach keyboard music or some very modest atonal writing; this disc is a reminder of an era when he utilised orchestral scores. Erik Nordgren, whose compositions include major concertos and chamber music, wrote seventeen film scores for Ingmar Bergman. The finest examples of their close collaboration can be heard on this recording. They include the symphonically proportioned Waiting Women, the suggestive and mysterious score for Wild Strawberries and the exceptional economy of The Face.

GILBERT & SULLIVAN: HMS PINAFORE, Soloists, Scottish Opera Richard Egarr, Lynne CKD522  This is a lively and ingratiating reading of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic masterpiece, ruled hors de combat for this listener by the ill-judged participation of Tim Brooke-Taylor as narrator; why anyone considered this notion would be something that would reward repeated listings is frankly beyond me. But if you don’t share this opinion, the opera is dispatched in energetic fashion.

Harmonia Mundi, PentaTone, Reference: New SACDs reviewed by Graham Williams


PROKOFIEV: PIANO CONCERTOS 2 & 5, Vadym Kholodenko (piano), Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, Miguel Harth-Bedoya/Harmonia Mundi SACD HMU 807631  The first release in Vadym Kholodenko’s projected cycle of Prokofiev’s 5 Piano Concertos for Harmonia Mundi couples two of the composer’s least performed concertos (2 & 5) in thrilling accounts that make one eager for the completion of this enterprise – (Concertos 1,3 and 4) scheduled for 2016/17. Ukranian born Kholodenko was the winner of the gold medal in the prestigious Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2013 and unsurprisingly has been garnering glowing reviews for the virtuosity of his playing – something that these days is almost taken for granted with concert pianists – but also for the thoughtful musicianship of his performances. The challenges of Prokofiev’s formidable 2nd Piano Concerto display both these qualities to the full. Kholodenko’s account of the opening movement is richly expressive from the start and the monumental cadenza that occupies more than a third of this movement is delivered with fearsome power and weight. The Scherzo is deftly played, with Miguel Harth-Bedoya and the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra providing alert and characterful support both here and in the Intermezzo that follows. The Finale is notable for the lightness of touch Kholodenko brings to the more lyrical passages and the incisive vehemence of his articulation. The 5th Concerto also receives a performance that makes its comparative neglect perplexing. The dominant angularity of Prokofiev’s writing and the wistful lyricism found in the fourth movement spark a performance of muscular strength and mercurial wit from Kholodenko, while Miguel Harth-Bedoya and the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra bring rhythmic acuity and pungency to the composer’s distinctive orchestral pallet. Both works were recorded live at the Bass Performance Hall, Fort Worth, Texas in October 2014 (Concerto 2) and March 2015 (Concerto 5) and conspicuously benefit from being recorded, edited and mastered in DSD by engineer Brad Michel. The perspective is close, presumably to avoid any trace of audience noise, and though the balance certainly favours the piano, comparatively few orchestral details are lost. Overall the sound is remarkably rich and vivid. A most impressive release.

RUSSIAN DANCES: TCHAIKOVSKY: SUITE FROM SWAN LAKE, GLAZUNOV: 2 CONCERT WALTZES, SHOSTAKOVICH: THE GOLDEN AGE, STRAVINSKY: CIRCUS POLKA, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Kazuki Yamada/PENTATONE Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid PTC 518 6557  Russian Dances’ is the third and final release in a PENTATONE series devoted to compositions closely or loosely related to the dance and performed by the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande directed by their principal guest conductor the charismatic Kazuki Yamada. Here the program takes us on a chronological journey from 19th century Russia, courtesy of Tchaikovsky and Glazunov, to the 20th-century represented by Shostakovich and Stravinsky. Kazuki Yamada’s account of the ever popular suite from ‘Swan Lake’ is beautifully paced at danceable tempi and the OSR respond to his direction throughout with playing of polish and refinement – the exquisitely phrased oboe solo at the opening being just one example of many. There are noteworthy contributions in the Act II ‘Scène-Andante’ (track 4) from Notburga Puskas, harp, François Guye, cello and the orchestra’s concert master Bogdan Zvoristeanu . One minor blemish is that the latter’s rather effortful breathing has been captured by the microphones. It is worth mentioning that, unlike some conductors, Yamada uses the eight-movement version of the suite, so both the delicious Danse éspagnole and Danse napolitaine are included, the latter featuring a splendidly agile cornett solo from Olivier Bombrun. The Tchaikovsky ballet suite is followed by genial performances of the two concert waltzes of Alexander Glazunov written in the 1890s as precursors to the composition of his celebrated ballets ‘The Seasons’ and ‘Raymonda’, and though often appearing either singly or together on disc remain rarities in the concert hall. Yamada’s performances have an appealing air of insouciance and a lightness of touch reflected in the immaculate orchestral playing. The four-movement suite from Shostakovich’s ballet of Soviet realism ‘Zolotoy vek’ (The Golden Age) is performed with all the wit and zest essential for the ‘Polka’ and ‘Dance’, but Yamada also finds surprising emotional depth in the second movement ‘Adagio’. Finally we have Stravinsky’s galumphing Circus Polka to end this entertaining programme in rumbustious style. PENTATONE’s superb 5.0-channel DSD recording, expertly engineered by Polyhymnia’s Erdo Groot, has a wonderfully coherent sound stage full of detail and with a glowing ambience that brings the fine acoustic of the Victoria Hall Geneva to vibrant life. While much of the repertoire on offer here is available in countless alternative recordings, Yamada’s persuasive accounts of these evergreen pieces delivered in gloriously opulent sound are irresistible.

DAWN TO DUST: Augusta Read Thomas: EOS (Goddess of the Dawn), a Ballet for Orchestra, Nico Muhly: Control (5 Landscapes for Orchestra), Andrew Norman: Switch*, Colin Currie* (percussion), Utah Symphony, Thierry Fischer/Reference Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid  FR-719  Dawn to Dust’ is the apt title of this new release on the Reference Recordings Fresh! label of works commissioned from three leading American contemporary composers by the Utah Symphony as part of the orchestra’s 75th anniversary celebrations during the 2015/2016 season. All three works here receive their world premier recordings in scrupulously prepared performances conducted by Thierry Fischer, the orchestra’s Music Director. The programme opens with ‘Eos (Goddess of the Dawn)’ by Augusta Read Thomas (b.1964) whose command of a wide ranging orchestral palette is breathtaking. She subtitles the piece ‘A ballet for orchestra’ and confesses in the liner notes that many of her orchestral and chamber compositions were conceived with dance in mind. Lasting around 18 minutes and played without a break, ‘Eos’ has seven movements each of which has a descriptive title. These, and a ballet narrative, are also reproduced in the liner notes and I found them most helpful in following the progress of the work. The music is full of ravishing orchestral sonorities, the subtle use of glittering percussion and writing for winds being immediately striking, whilst the almost Mahlerian string passages in the fourth section ‘Dreams and Memories’ are equally memorable. Textures have a crystalline clarity throughout and the ever changing variety of rhythmic patterns holds the listener’s attention in a composition of great eloquence and lucidity. Nico Muhly (born 1981) has composed works in many genres that include opera, ballet, sacred and pop music and has already amassed a considerable discography. His ‘Control’ (Five Landscapes for Orchestra) deals with Utah’s spectacular natural environment and the manner in which humans interact with it. Muhly acknowledges the influence of the music of Olivier Messiaen and in particular the latter’s ‘Des Canyons aux Étoiles’ a composition also inspired by the Utah landscape. The tiles of the work’s five parts are ‘Landform’– a depiction of large geological structures, ‘Mountain’ – an impressionistic mountain landscape in summer, ‘Beehive’ – industriousness that leads to technological innovation, ‘Petroglyph & Tobacco’ – suggestive of the resilience of Native Americans and finally ‘Red Dust’ – a striking feature of the St. George area of southern Utah. Though the music is harmonically complex, sometimes densely textured and often quite austere, its uncompromising originality and lack of pretension encourages repeated listening. The programme is completed by ‘Switch, a wildly energetic, one might almost say hyperactive, percussion concerto, written by Los Angeles based Andrew Norman (born 1979) and performed here with the utmost virtuosity by Colin Currie. Of the work Norman has written: “Cast as a single movement, Switch takes off where my orchestral cycle Play left off in exploring non-linear narrative structures and video game logic. The percussionist’s many instruments act as triggers, turning other players on and off, making them play forward and backward, and causing them to jump to entirely different musical worlds.” With an uninterrupted span of 28’34” it is the longest piece on the disc and it seems so. The music’s unrelenting drive, interspersed with occasional calm passages, is at first invigorating, but quickly becomes quite exhausting even for the receptive listener. One is left wishing that Colin Currie and the Utah Symphony’s dazzling and definitive account of this theatrical piece had been given a video dimension to clarify the darting interactions between soloist and orchestra and allow the eyes to reduce some of the strain on the ears. I accept, however, that others might not share this view. As is to be expected from this audiophile label, the sound quality on this 5.1 channel SACD (recorded and post produced in 64fs DSD)is awesome. The wide dynamic range of the recording allows both the subtlest string pianissimos and the loudest percussive climaxes to be reproduced with equal fidelity – every instrument clearly identified within a soundstage that possesses convincing width and depth. Though recorded live (February, November and December 2015) at concerts in the Maurice Abravanel Hall, Salt Lake City, the reliable team of Dirk Sobotka. John Newton and Mark Donahue from Soundmirror, Boston, have ensured no audience noise is audible and applause has also been excised. Exemplary notes on these compositions written by their respective composers complete this stimulating release.

MASON BATES: ORCHESTRAL WORKS, San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas/San Francisco Symphony/SFS SACD 0065  The name of composer Mason Bates, though possibly familiar to those living in the United States, is unlikely to be as well known to those in other parts of the world, but this is something that may well change with the release of this stunning SACD of his music from Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony. Mason Bates is a 39 year old classically trained (at Juilliard and Berkeley) composer with a considerable body of work in many genres including concertos, large scale orchestral works and shorter ones that he calls ‘openers’. Bates is just completing his duties as one of two composers-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra who have already released a CD recording of ‘Alternative Energy’, one of the three works on this disc, though unlike the one heard here it is not released in high resolution sound. He now begins a three-year residency at the Kennedy Center as their first composer-in-residence and is currently writing an opera about the late inventor and IT genius Steve Jobs. What, however, distinguishes him from many other contemporary composers is his parallel career as a DJ in dance clubs both in Europe and the United States. This has led him to extend the range and possibilities of the modern symphony orchestra through a fusion with electronic dance music. The predictably exciting results can be heard on this SACD. It is worth mentioning at this point that Bates’s music is tuneful, rhythmically inventive and totally accessible which is one reason why its reception with audiences has been overwhelmingly positive. It is up to others to speculate on what will be the shelf-life of these populist works and the composer’s future direction, but his talent is undeniable. Bates describes the three pieces on this disc as ‘symphonies’ but they are really only symphonic if the earliest definition of the word as “sounding together” is applied. Each is really a suite whose movements are linked thematically by a clear extra-musical narrative. All three works require large orchestral forces plus electronica of different types. ‘The B-Sides’ and ‘Liquid Interface’ were recorded in January 8-18, 2014 whilst ‘Alternative Energy’ was recorded later the same year (September 10-13).’The B-Sides’ was commissioned and premiered by the SF Symphony in 2009 and is dedicated to Michael Tilson Thomas. It is a response to the conductor’s suggestion that the composer should write a collection of five pieces focusing on texture and sonority in the manner of Schoenberg’s ‘Five Pieces for Orchestra’. The musical imagery here is wide ranging; travelling from the ravishingly impressionistic textures heard at the start of ‘Broom of the System’ through ‘Gemini in the Solar Wind’ (that incorporates clips of actual conversations between NASA and the astronaut Ed White) and ending with the pulsating low frequency energy of ‘Warehouse Medicine’ that re-imagines the Detroit dance scene parties of the 1990s. In ‘Liquid Interface’ (2007) the music seems more focussed. Its subject is the various manifestations and states of water. ‘Glaciers Calving’ includes the sounds of fracturing glaciers in Antarctica while the dazzling ‘Scherzo Liquido’ bears witness to the alertness and virtuosity of the SFS musicians throughout these performances. The work’s final section is a tranquil evocation of spring at Wannsee, the lake on the outskirts of Berlin where Mason Bates once lived. ‘Alternative Energy’ (2011) is the most recent work on this disc and the most ambitious. In addition to large orchestral forces it requires a laptop, 6 speakers placed around the orchestra, and some onstage monitors. Bates calls it an “energy symphony”, and it takes us on a journey from Henry Ford’s Farm in 1896, depicted by metallic mechanical sounds and a folksy violin solo, to ‘Chicago, 2012’ a movement that makes spectacular use of the SACD’s surround sound capability and includes actual recordings from the FermiLab particle accelerator. Another leap forward in time and we reach ‘Xinjiang Province 2112’ a futuristic depiction of an industrial complex – its Chinese location indicated by some pentatonic melodic phrases – before the music erupts into a driving techno beat of unrelenting energy.  The final movement ‘Reykjavik, 2222’ suggests a strange post-apocalyptic landscape punctuated by electronic bird cries. Towards the end the violin solo from the start of the work re-appears to possibly suggest a return to a simpler way of life. Needless to say the orchestra under the direction of MTT play with tremendous concentration and enthusiasm in all three works. As with all SFS Media releases the production values could not be higher. Producer Jack Vad and his engineering team have created a magnificently vivid recording (PCM 192kHz/24-bit) in the Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco that, especially when heard in multi-channel sound, does full justice to Bates’s kaleidoscopic orchestral palette. The dynamic range is huge and everything from the soft whispers of string chords to room-shaking electronic pulses is reproduced with astonishing clarity in a realistic concert hall acoustic. Though these are live recordings there is no trace of audience noise and, unlike some other SFS Media issues, applause has been excised.
In short we have here 71 minutes of exuberant music from the fertile imagination of a talented composer, performed with style and flair and recorded in state-of-the-art sound – what’s not to like?

VIVALDI: BASOON CONCERTOS, Academy of St Martin in the Fields, Gustavo Núñez/PENTATONE SACD PTC 5186539  With the exception of the violin, Vivaldi composed more concertos for the bassoon than any other instrument – a total of 39 if two incomplete works are included – yet little is known about for whom they were written. But it is generally believed that Vivaldi composed these concertos in the1720s and 30s and that the pupils of the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice, where he was the ‘maestro dei concerti’, were probably the recipients since their reputation as accomplished instrumentalists is well documented. On this impeccably recorded release from PENTATONE six of these concertos are performed by Gustavo Núñez who since 1995 has been principal bassoonist of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and is widely regarded as one of the leading bassoonists of his generation. Núñez performs these works on a modern instrument whose attractive tone enhances the stunning virtuosity displayed by him throughout this disc. The technical demands of these concertos, that include wide ranging leaps, arpeggios and fast scales, are met with ease by this consummate performer, while the flawless cantabile that Núñez displays in the expressive slow movements is especially appealing. Such is the variety and inventiveness of these compositions that one can happily listen to all six of Núñez’s superlative performances of them in one session without any trace of boredom ever creeping in. Núñez is partnered by the twenty one strong Academy of St. Martin in the Fields directed by Tomo Keller. Their crisp and alert accompaniment is always attentive to the soloist, and though these works are performed on modern instruments they do include elements of period style such as minimum vibrato and tasteful contributions from the four continuo players (Stephen Orton – cello, Lynda Houghton – double bass, Lynda Sayce – Theorbo and John Constable – harpsichord). The exuberance of the ASMF playing in all six concertos is bracing – the opening ritornello of the Bassoon Concerto in A Minor RV 497 (tr.14) being a prime example of the unanimity and fire of their attack. The recordings were made in April 2015 in St. John’s Smith Square, London – a venue long renowned for its fine acoustics. The Polyhymnia team’s microphones have captured just the right amount of the church’s ambience in their beautifully balanced 5.0 DSD multichannel recording to allow clarity of the instrumental lines while at the same time retaining the vividness and warmth of the overall sound picture. In all respects Vivaldi’s genius is well served by these spirited performances presented in immaculately recorded sound. Highly recommended.