Graham Williams Reviews

Pianistic Fireworks: KHACHATURIAN and PROKOFIEV

KHACHATURIAN/PROKOFIEV PIANO CONCERTOS Nareh Arghamanyan, Ruundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, Alain Altogluu/PentaTone PTC 5186 510 SACD  Nareh Arghamanyan’s first recording for PentaTone of solo piano works by Rachmaninov showed her to be an artist of surprising maturity who combines musical acuity with a prodigious technique. Her follow-up disc of the Liszt Piano Concertos confirmed one’s favourable opinion of her potential in virtuoso repertoire. Her latest release couples Prokofiev’s 3rd Piano Concerto – his most popular and most recorded – with the Piano Concerto of her fellow Armenian Aram Khachaturian, a work rarely appearing on concert programmes and even less frequently on disc and as in the earlier Liszt recording she is partnered here by the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by the young French-born conductor Alain Altinoglu with whom she obviously has a close rapport. Khachaturian’s Piano Concerto dates from 1936 and attempted to revive the bravura pianistic traditions of Liszt while at the same time introducing material in the concerto that derived from Armenian folk sources, though the composer denied quoting directly from such sources. The bass drum thwack that opens the work resonates impressively in PentaTone ‘s vivid recording made in the Haus des Rundfunks, RBB Berlin in October 2013 and Nareh Arghamanyan’s decisive first entry illustrates both the physical strength of her playing and her virtuosity as the movement proceeds. She plays the first of the movement’s two long solo passages with a relaxed improvisatory feel and brings great exuberance and stunning virtuosity to the second. The haunting central ‘Andante’ begins and ends with the bass clarinet extemporising under soft chords on muted strings before the gentle entry of the soloist. Khachaturian’s scoring calls for a most unusual, and frankly bizarre sounding instrument – the flexatone, to be used in this movement. For this recording, however, Alain Altinoglu, has replaced the flexatone by a musical saw which certainly blends better with the strings and sounds here little different from a theremin or an ondes martinot. The jazzy and sometimes even orgiastic finale is given a terrific performance from both soloist and orchestra, the music only slowing for the brilliant cadenza before building to a restatement of the first movement’s opening theme and then driving to its thrilling and emphatic final chords. Though this concerto has often been accused of brashness and empty rhetoric it is still worth an occasional outing especially when heard in such a beautifully recorded and committed performance as this one by Nareh Arghamanyan. The Prokofiev concerto that follows faces much tougher competition from countless rival recordings and though Arghaman’s playing has all the necessary fire power her performance fails to match the best of the SACD alternative versions in this piece that include those from Byron Janis, Freddy Kempff and Denis Matsuev. Thanks to the rather cautious tempi adopted by Altinoglu and Arghamanyan her account lacks the flamboyance of those mentioned above and its slightly restrained quality, while sometimes appropriate in the slower section of the work, misses some of the composer’s wit and panache in the outer movements. It must, however, be said that the orchestral contribution could hardly be finer. I can’t recall a recording that reveals so much subtle detail in Prokofiev’s orchestral writing and needless to say PentaTone’s sound quality is beyond reproach. Those seeking this release for the Khachaturian Piano Concerto need not hesitate.

Stunning Szymanowski

SZYMANOWSKI: Symphony No. 3 ‘The Song of the Night’, etc., BBC Symphony Orchestra, Edward Gardner Chandos SACD CHSA 5143  This is the eighth release in Chandos’s extensive survey of Polish music (Muzyka Polska) and the third SACD in the series devoted to the orchestral and vocal music of Karol Szymanowski. The two earlier have garnered much well-deserved praise for the insightful conducting of Edward Gardner, the fine playing of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the superb Chandos engineering. In every one of those essential aspects this latest recording matches the previous issues. Szymanowski’s Symphony No. 3 ‘The Song of the Night’, completed in 1914, is a setting of the poem by the 13th century Persian poet, Jalal al-Din al- Rumi in a translation by Tadeusz Micinski. It has received some notable recordings over recent years of which those by Simon Rattle (CD only) and Antoni Wit, whose compelling version is available on a Blu-ray audio disc, deserve particular consideration from collectors. Overall Gardner’s tempi are closer to those of Wit than Rattle and he captures the perfumed sensuousness of the music to perfection. The young British tenor Ben Johnson copes well with the high tessitura of his solos, even if he does not quite match Ryszard Minkiewicz’s more idiomatic singing for Wit. Both the BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra could hardly be more committed in their collective response to Gardner’s detailed and glowing account of Szymanowski’s rhapsodic and ecstatic masterpiece, and the Chandos 24-bit / 96kHz recording is absolutely outstanding. It has a huge dynamic range that brings an almost holographic realisation to the listener of the spacious acoustic of the Fairfield Halls, Croydon where it was recorded in February 2014. The venue for the recording of the ‘Love Songs of Hafiz’ was the BBC Maida Vale Studio 1 whose clear acoustic seems perfect for experiencing the beauty of Szymanowski’s glittering orchestral palette and Ben Johnson’s sensitive singing of these eight songs. The texts are by the 14th Century poet Shams al-Din Muhammad, better known as Hafiz, translated into German by the poet Hans Bethge. The first three songs are from an earlier cycle for voice and piano of the same title to which were then added five more to produce the version heard here that received its first performance in Warsaw 1922 as an accompaniment to a ballet. Each one is exquisitely orchestrated in the composer’s oriental style from that period in his creative development and the recording captures every delicate detail with utmost clarity and warmth. It is sometimes difficult to know what to make of Szymanowski’s 1st Symphony. It was the young composer’s first foray into the genre and was originally intended as a three-movement work, but a planned central Adagio never materialised. The two remaining movements are both densely scored and written in highly chromatic harmonic language. The music of this symphony verges at times on hysteria though it is interspersed with more lyrical passages. Edward Gardner’s cohesive performance of this symphony holds the work together better than any previous versions that I have encountered, and by adopting a less frenetic approach than Valery Gergiev’s recent account on LSO Live, makes a good case for a work rarely heard in the concert hall. The fine acoustic of the recording venue – this time the Watford Colosseum – plays an important part in keeping textures clear. This SACD is another marvellous addition to the growing discography of this fascinating composer’s oeuvre.

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.

Bach in Surround Sound and Other Titles: Reviews by Graham Williams

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BACH: BRANDENBURG CONCERTOS, Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, TACET SACD 0101-5  TACET’s unique recordings of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos by the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra have already been released on SACD as a two-disc. The re-release of all six concertos on a single Blu-ray audio disc with a playing time of 94′ 39” minutes will be a tempting prospect for those who admire TACET’s philosophy of placing the listener at the centre of the performance and utilising the full capabilities of multi-channel sound. These Stuttgart performances were originally recorded in 2000 and first issued, I believe, in the now virtually defunct DVD-A format disc before release on SACD and now Blu-ray audio. Choice between multi-channel (default) and stereo layers is made using respectively the red or yellow buttons on the player’s remote control. Though the information on the disc case states ‘TACET Real Surround 5.1′ it is in fact 4.1 as there is no use of the centre channel. The recordings were made in the small baroque church in the village of Gönningen in Baden-Wurttemberg whose clear acoustic suits these works perfectly. Five different instrumental layouts are used and the benefit each of these bring to the clarity of Bach’s contrapuntal writing is immense. The ear can focus on individual instrumental lines with ease while at the same time the overall body of sound remains coherent. These accounts of the Brandenburgs from the superb Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra are unfailingly excellent. They perform on modern instruments, but with the addition of a harpsichord engagingly played by Robert Aldwinckle. These are in no way ‘old-fashioned’ – tempi are brisk but not frenetic, and the various members of the orchestra communicate a sense of absolute technical confidence and refinement of tone Some will miss the bright sound of recorders in the 4th Concerto but the crisp and beautifully articulated playing of the two flautists, Natalie Schwaabe and Andreas Schmidt, is a delight. There are countless versions of these joyous masterpieces on record – performed in widely different interpretative styles and utilising varying degrees of scholarship – to suit every taste. Those, however, who are unconvinced by the sounds of some of the more adrenalin-fuelled, wiry and acidulous sounding period groups in these works – where all too often displays of virtuosity take precedence over more lasting musical values – should find this disc a most refreshing alternative.

SPLENDID ORGAN SOUNDS Andrzej Chorosiński, organ/Musicon SACD MSCD 047 It is rare these days for a record company, whether large or small, to move from CD to high resolution recordings, but the Polish company Musicon, much to their credit, has done just that by releasing a clutch of seven multi-channel hybrid SACDs of organ music recorded between 2010 and 2014. The aptly titled ‘Splendid Organ Sounds’ is a collection of pieces designed to illustrate the unique sound and capabilities of the organ of St. Jacob’s Cathedral in the city of Olsztyn in north-eastern Poland. Some were written specifically for the organ by various composers whilst others are arrangements and transcriptions of works originally written for other instruments or instrumental combinations. They are played here by Professor Andrzej Chorosiński of the Frederic Chopin University in Warsaw. The recital begins with Chorosiński’s own tasteful transcription of ‘La Primavera’, the opening concerto of Vivaldi’s popular ‘Four Seasons’ though some may find the playing in the outer movements lacking the exuberance and charm usually associated with this piece. The romantic repertoire is well represented by fine accounts of César Franck’s ‘Prélude, Fugue and Variation’ and the sixth of Mendelssohn’s Organ Sonatas, a work based on the Lutheran Bach chorale ‘Vater unser im Himmelreich BWV 416. But perhaps the most imposing sounds from the much restored Olsztyn instrument are heard in the splendid four-movement ‘Suite Gothique pour grand orgue’ by Léon Böellmann and the lesser known, at least outside Poland, ‘Improvisations on the Polish hymn ‘Holy God” by Mieczyslaw Surzyński. The final three items on this disc are Bach arrangements and transcriptions – the ever popular ‘Air’ from Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major and restrained, though not especially distinctive, accounts of two of the most performed six Schübler Chorales. The booklet states that the recording – made in May 2011 – is 24bit/96 kHz 5.0 surround, but the output from my sub-woofer suggests that it is in fact 5.1. The acoustic of the imposing Olsztyn Gothic Basilica is excellently conveyed with praiseworthy focus and depth, and there is very little mechanism noise captured by the microphones. The attractive accompanying 24-page booklet provides details of the organ specification, photographs of the interior of St. Jacob’s Cathedral and notes on the music in Polish, English and German. Thanks to Musicon’s fine engineering this enjoyable SACD provides a comprehensive demonstration of the wide range of tone colour that the Olsztyn instrument is capable of producing in music of different styles, and as such it can be recommended on both sonic and musical grounds.

MASTERPIECES IN MINIATURE, San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas, San Francisco Symphony SACD SFS 0060  The release of ‘Masterpieces in Miniature’ celebrates Michael Tilson Thomas’s 20th season with the San Francisco Symphony, a partnership that over the years has yielded so many fine recordings. The twelve pieces on this disc are, for the most part, what Sir Thomas Beecham would have called ‘Lollipops'; short encores played at the end of concerts of music that usually contrasts in mood with what has been heard earlier and are designed to send the audience home in a contented frame of mind. The majority of the works featured here are timeless classics – melodic and for the most part undemanding for the listener who can simply sit back and enjoy the superb orchestral playing delivered in state-of-the-art sound. All were recorded live but there is no audience noise and the justifiably enthusiastic applause only erupts after the final item – a swaggering account of the ‘Cortège de Bacchus’ from Delibes’s ballet ‘Sylvia’. The first item, the sparkling Scherzo from Henry Litolff’s ‘Concerto Symphonique No.4′, receives a brilliant performance from the charismatic young pianist Yuja Wang who has made very regular appearances with the SFS since her début with them back in 2006. The delicacy and precision of her playing is matched by the orchestra’s alert accompaniment. This is followed by Mahler’s ‘Blumine’, a lovely piece that was originally intended as the second movement of the composer’s 1st Symphony but was removed by him in the wake of adverse criticism. Those who have some or all of Michael Tilson Thomas’s superb cycle of Mahler Symphonies and works for voice, chorus and orchestra on this label will be delighted to have this addendum to them. It receives a deeply felt and affectionate performance in which the orchestra’s Principal Trumpet Mark Inouye deserves special kudos for the sensitivity and elegance of his trumpet solos. In the wake of a beautifully poised and cool account of Faure’s ‘Pavane’ we have something of a rarity – Debussy’s own orchestration of ‘La Plus que lente’ a piano waltz that he composed in 1910. Two years later, possibly influenced by the sounds of the gypsy café ensembles that he heard in the Hungarian capital, Debussy orchestrated the piece for flute, clarinet, piano, strings and the exotic cimbalom. It is a captivating piece delivered with style and appropriate languid nonchalance. The inclusion on this disc of ‘The Alcotts’ movement from the Ives/Brant ‘A Concord Symphony’ was an excellent idea. This track is taken from an earlier release on the SFS label and this excerpt should help to bring this iconoclastic work to a wider audience. Little comment is needed about the Schubert, Rachmaninov, Dvorak, Sibelius and Grieg items each of which receive polished renditions from this superb orchestra, but mention must be made of Michael Tilson Thomas’s enthralling account of Delius’s ‘On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring’ that suggests a Delian of some stature. It is perhaps worth mentioning that clips from all twelve pieces can be auditioned at http://www.youtube.com/user/sfsymphony. Thanks to the fine acoustic of the Davies Symphony Hall, the sound quality is all one could wish for – rich and detailed and clean. Tracks 1-5 and 7-12 were recorded in September 2013 and May 2014 (PCM 192kHz / 24-bit) and Track 6 is taken from the Ives/Brant recording referred to above recorded in February 2010 (96kHz / 24-bit). Multi-channel listeners will find that the use of the centre channel is quite discreet on all the tracks recorded in 2013 and 2014. This does not, however, in any way affect one’s enjoyment of this most recommendable SACD.

NIELSEN: SYMPHONIES 1 & 4, New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert Dacapo SACD  6.220624 It has been a long wait of more than two years since the first issue in Dacapo’s Nielsen Symphony cycle from Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic was released – a coupling of the composer’s 3rd and 2nd Symphonies, so this second volume comprising Nielsen’s 4th and 1st Symphonies is most welcome. Both symphonies were recorded live at Avery Fisher Hall, New York City in March 2014 and the liner notes inform us that the recording was made in the DXD audio format (352.8kHz /24-bit). The sound quality throughout is very fine indeed, and engineer Preben Iwan is to be congratulated for managing to achieve such a clear and spacious result in a venue whose acoustic has often been the subject of criticism. Comparisons with the earlier release reveal that the capture of the hall reverberation is now more natural and that the orchestral image is marginally closer to the listener. There are small traces of audience noise picked up by the microphones, a rustle here and a discreet cough there, as is to be expected from live performances. More disturbing is the conductor’s tendency to stamp on the podium – try from 9’37” into the third movement of the 4th symphony. These minor flaws, however, pale into insignificance when the overall excellence of Gilbert’s performances are taken into account. The playing of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra again shows that they are still one of the world’s great orchestras. Strings possess a glowing richness and warmth, woodwinds are characterful with every solo beautifully phrased, while the burnished lower brass and fabulous horn section thrill with every entry. Gilbert’s use of antiphonally divided violins also adds immensely to the appreciation of Nielsen’s string writing in both symphonies and, whether playing softly or very loudly, timpani are captured with amazing fidelity – though I would have liked to have heard a greater separation between the two sets of battling timpani in the finale of the 4th Symphony. I was surprised to find that Gilbert’s tempi for each of the four movements of the 1st Symphony match, within a few seconds, those adopted by Colin Davis in his 2012 recording. The propulsive approach adopted by both conductors is admirably suited to this work though Gilbert has the advantage of incomparably better sound. It must be mentioned, however, that the elephant in the room is the rival Nielsen cycle from Sakari Oramo and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra on the BIS label that began with a stunning performances of the 4th and 5th Symphonies. Many collectors will surely wish to wait for both cycles to be completed, hopefully by next year, the 150th anniversary of Nielsen’s birth. In the meantime this latest release can be confidently recommended.

TCHAIKOVSKY: THE NUTCRACKER, Bergen Philharmonic, Neeme Järvi CHANDOS SACD CHSA 5144  With this release of ‘The Nutcracker’ Neeme Järvi completes his splendid accounts of the three great Tchaikovsky ballets with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra for Chandos. The qualities that made the previous releases of ‘Swan Lake’ and ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ so memorable are once again in abundance. They include polished orchestral playing from the Bergen Philharmonic and superb recorded sound from Ralph Couzens and his colleagues in the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK). Neeme Järvi’s penchant for fast tempi in much of the music he conducts has sometimes led to accusations of superficiality in his performances – a view to which I would not subscribe, so it is worth pointing out that although the complete ballet is accommodated uncut on a single SACD, his overall timing for the work is 84’35”. On the other hand Antal Dorati and the LSO on his classic Mercury Living Presence SACD release (divided between 2 discs) is dispatched in 78’52” while another very recommendable single disc version (unfortunately not available on SACD) from Valery Gergiev and his Mariinsky Orchestra has a playing time of 80’58”.That said, the ‘Ouverture’ that begins the work is taken at a fast pace, but thanks to the crisp articulation of the Bergen players it does not sound rushed. For most of what follows Järvi continues to press forward, capturing perfectly the excitement and expectation of Christmas Eve in the Silberhaus home, but gradually becoming more expansive from the departure of the guests to the end of the Act. The magical transformation scene (Tr.7) and subsequent battle with the mice (Tr.8) – the latter heralded by a more realistic gunshot than the feeble efforts heard on some other recordings – is absolutely gripping. In this Act’s final Tableau the well drilled singing of the Bergen Pikekor and Bergen Guttekor gives much pleasure. The opening of Act II, as Clara and her Prince journey to the Kingdom of Sweets, finds Järvi in more relaxed and expansive mood allowing extra time for one to appreciate both the refinement and panache of his fine orchestra. The familiar dances of the ‘Divertissement are delivered with an affectionate warmth not always associated with this conductor and mention must be made of the harpist Johannes Wik, whose immaculate delivery of the harp cadenza at the opening of the ‘Valse des Fleurs’ (Tr.19) and artistry elsewhere delights the ear. The work’s final sections are notable for the exuberance Järvi brings to them, though why he makes an unexpected and sudden brief ritardando at 2.24 in the ‘Valse finale’ (Tr.24) is anybody’s guess. It almost goes without saying that the open and generous acoustic of the Grighallen Bergen where the ballet was recorded last December is ideal for Tchaikovsky’s marvellous orchestration to be savoured. The sound is immaculately balanced by the engineers and amazingly vivid in both 2-channel stereo and 5.0 channel surround. Though the virtues of rival versions of this much recorded ballet should not be overlooked, the considerable advantage of Järvi’s compelling performance on single hybrid SACD will make it a first choice for many listeners and it warrants an unqualified recommendation.

 

New SACDs from LSO Live, Chandos & Reference reviewed by Graham Williams

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BRAHMS: SYMPHONIES 3 & 4, LSO, Valery Gergiev/LSO Live SACD LSO 0737  The recording of two Brahms Symphonies that occupy this SACD stem from performances by the LSO under Valery Gergiev given at the Barbican in December 2012. At these concerts Gergiev paired Brahms Symphonies with those of Szymanowski – an idea that many might regard as a bizarre piece of programming. However, the latter have already appeared on the LSO Live label no doubt helping to increase the listening public’s awareness of the fine music by an unfamiliar Polish composer. Brahms needs no such advocacy and with a catalogue bursting with recordings of Brahms Symphonies from some of the greatest conductors of the past 100 years one is left wondering why anyone at LSO Live thought that Gergiev’s accounts were worth preserving on disc, especially as there is already a fine set of these symphonies by Bernard Haitink on this same label. That said, Gergiev’s powerful performance of the Brahms 3rd Symphony is quite impressive with some notably fine wind and brass playing throughout from the LSO and his division of violins antiphonally helps to keep the textures of Brahms’s more densely scored passages clear.  The opening movement (exposition repeat taken) is expansive though certainly not lacking in ‘ brio’. The following ‘Andante’ flows expressively as does the melancholic and songful third movement ‘Poco allegretto’ – the latter also having the dubious benefit of a brief touch of the conductor’s vocalisations at its start. Gergiev’s finale is forceful and dramatic and brings Brahms’s most personal symphony to a satisfying conclusion. Unlike the previous work, Gergiev’s account of the 4th Symphony disappoints. The opening movement seems somewhat perfunctory, lacking both forward momentum and purpose. The slow movement is dutiful rather than engaging, in spite of some lovely instrumental solos from the orchestra, and once again is marred by Gergiev’s humming. The scherzo, however, is buoyant and energetic whilst the finale, here played ‘attacca’, unfolds with appropriate passion and grandeur. Sadly, the intractable Barbican acoustic could hardly be more unsuited to the music of Brahms and the recording engineers have been faced with an almost impossible task in attempting to capture the music’s warmth and richness.  When playing forte or above the violins sound shrill, whilst timpani are dry and boxy. There is also little sense of depth to the sound which could only be described as claustrophobic. With so many excellent performances and recordings of these works available (even on SACD), Gergiev’s accounts are really not competitive.

ELGAR: THE DREAM OF GERONTIUS, SEA PICTURES, Soloists, Andrew Davis/Chandos SACD CHSA5140(2)  It is almost half a century since Sir John Barbirolli’s account of Elgar’s greatest oratorio ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ was recorded for EMI in Manchester  with the Hallé Orchestra (27-30 December 1964) and not surprisingly it quickly achieved the classic status it still enjoys today. For some it will always be the only recording they wish to listen to, thanks mainly to the incomparable singing of Janet Baker as the ‘Angel’ and the marvellous flexibility and sweep of Barbirolli’s conducting. But, as is the case with all musical masterpieces, there is always room for new performances from the artists of today to challenge those from the past, especially when they are as outstanding as this new SACD set from Chandos. The latest version of this much-recorded work has the inestimable advantage of being conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, a conductor with a pre-eminent reputation in English music and who for many years has been one of its finest exponents. (The DVD of his 1997 performance in celebration of the tercentenary of St. Paul’s Cathedral is still rather special and well worth watching). Now we have Davis’s excellent interpretation on SACD, expertly recorded in superb 5.0 channel surround sound. In Davis’s hands the score unfolds with an inevitability that only a great conductor can bring to it. It is beautifully paced – expansive yet always with a forward moving pulse. The conductor’s vast experience in both the opera house and the concert hall allows him to position the piece somewhere between an oratorio and an opera by ensuring that his soloists and choir extract the maximum drama from Newman’s words. In this he is aided by splendid playing from the BBC Symphony Orchestra whose absolute familiarity with this composition and empathy with their former Chief Conductor is apparent throughout. The shadow of Wagner’s ‘Parsifal’ looms large over ‘The Dream of Gerontius’, so the choice of the Australian tenor Stuart Skelton as Gerontius is an inspired one. His heroic ringing voice has the necessary heft to deliver the more histrionic passages of the part effortlessly without losing any beauty of tone and his diction throughout is impeccable. Perhaps what is even more impressive is his ability to pare down his voice to a whisper in “I go before my Judge” just before Davis builds the orchestral passage that follows to an awesome climax. Sarah Connolly uses her luxuriant mezzo-soprano with noteworthy intelligence and characterises the ‘Angel’ perfectly. The tonal beauty and firmness of her singing in “My work is done” at the start of Part II and in the valedictory “Softly and gently” is matched by her perfect enunciation of the text – altogether a consummate performance. The young bass David Soar as Priest and Angel of the Agony, delivers his solos with great authority and vocal firmness. The well-drilled BBC Symphony Chorus – obviously inspired by Davis’s impassioned direction – make the most of the huge choral outbursts such “Praise to the Holiest” and the Chorus of Demons, but are equally impressive as Assistants in the more tranquil passages in Part I where they display great sensitivity in their singing. The recording venue was the Fairfield Halls, Croydon whose excellent acoustic conveys a sense of spaciousness without in any way lessening the music’s impact. It is also worth mentioning that the organ pedal notes are captured with a depth and solidity that enhances the music’s sense of scale for the listener at home to thrilling effect and as a final bonus, at the end of the second SACD, we are given a further performance of the Prelude in its concert version. Sarah Connolly is also the soloist in Elgar’s song cycle ‘Sea Pictures’ that precedes the oratorio on this 2-disc set. These are five settings of poems by different poets including one by Caroline Alice Elgar, the composer’s wife. Though written for a Contralto, many Mezzo-sopranos have performed these exquisite songs with great success and this is in fact the second time Sarah Connolly has committed ‘Sea Pictures’ to disc; the first being eight years ago for Naxos.  Her singing is as rich and eloquent as on the earlier release but, as in the case of the main work, the greatest competition again comes from the glorious 1964 recording by Janet Baker and the London Symphony Orchestra  conducted by Barbirolli that is available on SACD. Davis’s tempi are swifter than those adopted by Barbirolli in each of the five songs – something that will please some more than others – but his use of the ad libitum organ parts in ‘Sabbath Morning at Sea’ and ‘The Swimmer’ adds a thrilling weight to their final stanzas. This outstanding release is, without doubt, the finest recording of ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ to have appeared on SACD and  it makes one eager for the forthcoming Chandos recording of  Elgar’s ‘King Olaf’ from Davis and Bergen forces. Recommended without reservation.

BERLIOZ: SYMPHONIE FANTASTIQUE, WAVERLEY, LSO, Valery Gergiev/LSO Live SACD LSO 0757 These recordings stem from concerts given in the Barbican (31st October and 13 November 2013) and represent the first release in what promises to be an exciting Berlioz cycle from Valery Gergiev and the LSO. It is hardly necessary to state that the LSO have the music of Berlioz in their blood. The championship of this composer for 40 years by their late musical director Sir Colin Davis ensured that Berlioz remained in the forefront of this orchestra’s repertoire. What may come as a surprise to many listening to this recording, as it did to me, is the total empathy Gergiev displays towards this music. The opening movement ‘Rêveries – Passions’ is uncharacteristically relaxed and poetic with beautifully nuanced playing especially from the strings. Gergiev’s seating of the orchestra with antiphonal violins is an excellent plus point as is his inclusion of the exposition repeat – something not always found on recordings from the past. The main allegro is exciting but not hard driven. Again in ‘Un Ball’ – a difficult movement to bring off – the conductor’s insouciant tempo allows elegant phrasing from every section of the LSO and it is pleasing to note that he uses the optional cornet parts that Berlioz later added. The spatial effects at the start of the ‘Scène au Champs’ are well conveyed even in the unforgiving Barbican acoustic, whilst the pastoral mood is established perfectly by Christine Pendrill’s lovely cor anglais solos. The main body of the movement is characterised by a flowing pace allowing for much fine legato playing and an acute awareness of the music’s changing moods. As one might expect Gergiev is in his element in the final two movements. The ‘Marche au Supplice’ blazes with the LSO brass and percussion in full cry and once again he includes the repeat in this movement. In ‘Songe d’une nuit du Sabbat’. Gergiev makes the most of all of Berlioz’s imaginative, and often grotesque, orchestral devices such as the clarinet glissandi (at 0.30), col legno strings (from 8.33) and atmospheric off-stage cast bells. The LSO respond with enthusiasm, bringing his stirring account of ‘Symphonie Fantastique’ to a rousing conclusion. The fill-up is a satisfyingly spirited performance of ‘Waverley’, one of Berlioz’s least performed overtures. In a new departure for LSO Live the 2-disc package contains both a hybrid SACD with 5.1 multi-channel and 2.0 stereo mixes and also a Pure Audio Blu-ray disc (DTS – HD MA 24bit/192kHz). The latter also includes what is modestly described on the CD case as ‘video footage’, but is in fact an excellently filmed complete Barbican performance of the Symphonie Fantastique in high definition video. This is well worth watching if only to marvel at how the tooth pick wielding maestro gets such compelling results from his orchestra. Constraints of the Barbican acoustic apart, the sound quality on both SACD and Blu-ray discs is clean and impactful, but like all LSO Live discs they need to be played at a suitably high volume to give of their best. Even without taking into account LSO Live’s competitive pricing this issue represents a considerable bargain for those sympathetic to Gergiev’s persuasive Berlioz and I look forward to its future continuation.

HINDEMITH, PROKOFIEV, BARTOK; ORCHESTRAL WORKS, Kansa City Symphony, Michael Stern/REFERENCE RECORDINGS RR 132 SACD  Michael Stern’s accounts of these three popular 20th century masterpieces with his fine Kansas City Symphony demonstrates musicianship of a high order throughout. Stern eschews any temptation to treat them merely as virtuoso orchestral showpieces, focusing instead on their more subtle musical values. The Hindemith is a perfect illustration of Stern’s approach. Tempi are well judged allowing his players to phrase ingratiatingly – for example, the flute solos in the ‘Andantino’ – while the final ‘Marsch’ is trenchant and dogged but at the same time uplifting and joyous in its final bars. The Prokofiev is similarly undemonstrative, and though some might feel that the opening is not quite incisive enough, Stern’s sane approach pays dividends as the Suite progresses. The ‘Infernal Scene’ (track 6) has great menace, not least due to the percussive impact of the recording, and the well-known ‘March’ is steady and cleanly articulated by the Kansas City Symphony. I particularly enjoyed the sensuousness Stern and his players bring to ‘The Prince and Princess’ (track 9). While the Concert Suite from ‘The Miraculous Mandarin’ may not have the  rawness of some native Hungarian performances, Stern’s more contained approach to this wonderful score yields many felicitations in the orchestral execution – the appropriately oleaginous clarinet playing of Robert Santos being just one example – and the savagery engendered in the Suite’s final section is spine tingling. The recording was entrusted to the capable hands of the veteran producer David Frost and engineer Keith O Johnson and, as one might expect, ‘Prof.’ Johnson’s sonics are spectacular in their richness and impact – especially at the bass end of the spectrum. Unlike the earlier releases of the Kansas City Symphony on Reference Recordings, this one was made in the orchestra’s impressive new performing home, the Helzberg Hall located in the Kauffman Centre for the Performing Arts (February 5-11, 2012). The 5.1 multi-channel SACD is sonically streets ahead of the CD/HDCD version of these performances issued some months ago. The listener is placed some way back in the hall but the sound has a wide spread between the speakers with a convincing depth and a pleasing ambience, most apparent in the quieter sections of these scores. I did, however, find it necessary to turn up the volume a tad to achieve real presence. With that done, the visceral impact of the Julia Irene Kauffman Casavant Organ at the opening of the Bartok became immediately apparent. It must be said, however, that, in all three works, the energy generated by every entry of the bass drum is of floor-shaking proportions. Though this is certainly attention grabbing, it is perhaps too much of a good thing especially for those with bass rich speakers. The accompanying liner notes on the three works by Richard Freed, are clear, informative and detailed in a way that is not always emulated by other companies. These expertly recorded and vividly etched performances can be confidently recommended.

JANACEK: SINFONIETTA, ETC. Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Edward Gardner CHANDOS CHSA 5142 SACD  Judging by this splendid first volume in a planned series of Janacek’s orchestral works for Chandos, Edward Gardner’s new appointment as Chief Conductor of the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra from October 2015 has the potential to yield some exciting future releases. This SACD opens with a dynamic performance of the popular ‘Sinfonietta’ that perfectly demonstrates the outstanding qualities of this orchestra. Gardner elicits incisive playing from the cohorts of brass in the fanfares that open and close the work, but he is also sensitive to the more lyrical and atmospheric passages such as those that open the third movement. Janacek’s very individual use of percussion is especially well captured by the engineers and perhaps the only thing missing is the edge-of-the-seat excitement generated by Sir Charles Mackerras in his final account of this piece with the Czech Philharmonic (CD only). Janacek’s ‘Capriccio’, like the ‘Sinfonietta ‘,was also written in 1926, this time at the request of the pianist Otakar Hollmann who having been wounded in the First World War could only use his left hand. Other Czech composers such as Martinu had already written works for Hollmann so Janacek’s commission is in many ways the counterpart to those received by Ravel, Prokofiev, Richard Strauss and Korngold by the similarly disabled pianist Paul Wittgenstein. The four-movement piece is written for the unusual combination of piano left-hand and a wind ensemble comprising a flute, two trumpets, three trombones and tenor tuba . The music is as capricious as its name suggests and requires as much virtuosity from seven wind players as the soloist.  One could hardly have a more persuasive exponent of this quirky piece – described by the composer as “nothing but pranks and puns” – than Jean-Efflam Bavouzet who is expertly accompanied on this disc by seven soloists from the orchestra each of whom is rightly credited by name. The Orchestral Suite from Janacek’s opera ‘The Cunning Little Vixen’ is most often performed in the arrangement made by the Czech conductor Vaclav Talich (1883-1961), though an earlier Suite made by Frantisek Jilek is occasionally heard – as on Jonathan Nott’s slightly underwhelming Janacek programme on the Tudor label. Talich’s Suite is in essence an orchestral transcription of the opera’s first Act, but was re-orchestrated in a way that romanticised and blunted the impact of Janacek’s unique sound. Here, however, we have Talich’s Suite in a version made by Sir Charles Mackerras a couple of years before his death in 2010. Mackerras restored Janacek’s original orchestration and slightly expanded the Suite’s second movement to make what surely must become a definitive arrangement. As in the other two works, the Bergen PO play this colourful music with a winning style and flare. The 5.0 recording made in the Grieghallen, Bergen in March 2014 is of the usual high standard expected from Chandos. In all three works we are given a marvellously coherent sound picture that is full of detail yet retains the warm ambience of this venue. Authoritative liner notes by the Janacek expert John Tyrell put the seal on this most recommendable issue.