Featured Reviews

Graham Williams on Fischer’s Mendelssohn

New from Naxos, Somm, Linn, Channel, etc.

ELGAR: SYMPHONY NO. 2 / SERENADE FOR STRINGS, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Edward Gardner/Chandos SACD CHSA 5197  In its day, Richard Hickox’s remarkable performance of Elgar’s Second Symphony – the first in the SACD medium – was a market leader, and it still remains immensely impressive, with the conductor’s implacable commitment to the music evident in every bar. Since then the symphony has had other catalogue entries in surround sound, here is another striking reading in SACD from the very company that issued that first disc, Chandos. While not displacing the Hickox disc, Edward Gardner’s BBC Symphony Orchestra take is commensurate in achievement with everything else that the conductor has set down for the company recently – a performance of real heft and drama. The bonus is a sympathetic reading of one of Elgar’s most performed works: the Serenade for Strings

RACHMANINOV: SYMPHONIES 1-3, SYMPHONIC DANCES, London Symphony Orchestra, Valery Gergiev/LSO Live SACD LSO 0816  Comprising 3 hybrid SACDs and one Pure Audio Blu-ray, this collection of Gergiev’s Rachmaninov recordings for LSO Live present these full-blooded masterpieces in readings rich with Russian colour and passion, in suitably impactful sound. The one misfire on the set is the Third Symphony, a stolidly dispatched performance that is surprising from such a customarily dynamic conductor, but that aside it’s a strong and persuasive collection.

HAYDN: THE CREATION, Soloists, Houston Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Andres Orozco-Estrada/PENTATONE SACD PTC 5186614  Haydn’s durable choral masterpiece has enjoyed many recordings over the years, but this is a particularly distinguished addition to the ranks, and couched in the surround sound medium, it immediately becomes a market leader. The conductor Andres Orozco-Estrada draws impeccable playing from his American orchestra, and while soloists may not displace memories of some of their distinguished predecessors, they do full justice to Haydn’s score. Toby Spence in particular lends a ringing assurance to his declarations.

GRIEG: SONGS, Carole Farley, London Philharmonic Orchestra/SOMM Ariadne 5001  While the talented Carol Farley’s voice may be the key selling point for this mellifluous collection, it is the sensitive orchestration of Greg’s piano writing by the conductor Jose Serebrier that makes the disc unique among kindred recordings. Utilising echoes of the variety of orchestration that Grieg used in his own orchestral pieces, it is the perfect accompaniment to Farley’s beautifully sung contributions. Might a second volume be feasible? Greg aficionados who hear this will disc be fervently hoping so….

POULENC: LES BICHES: SUITE, LES ANIMAUX MODÈLES: SUITE, SINFONIETTA, RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra • Jean-Luc Tingaud/ Naxos 8573739  French musical sophistication of the most rarefied kind distinguishes this welcome issue, and the disc is a reminder that Poulenc is a composer who deserves to be more than caviar to the general. Poulenc wrote two ballets, the suites from which feature on this recording. Fusing together musical styles from various periods and genres enabled him to construct the largely plot-free narrative of Les Biches, a sequence of captivating dances that explore many themes which were considered taboo at the time. In Les Animaux modèles, Poulenc transforms the animals of La Fontaine’s fables into human characters in a patchwork score brimming with colour, wit and self-borrowings. The Sinfonietta is playful and light-hearted.

DVORAK: PIANO QUINTETS, BAGATELLES, Busch Trio, Maria Milstein, Miguel Da Silva/Alpha Classics Alpha 403  For those love the music of Dvorak, much pleasure is to be found in the composer’s elegant chamber works with his contributions to the idiom (for virtually all combination of instruments) full of charm, demonstrating something like the warmth and approachability of his symphonies – although of course, the latter remain the composer’s calling card music — and likely to remain so. This very welcome disc of the piano quintets and bagatelles is admirably well played by Busch Trio, Maria Milstein and Miguel Da Silva, and if the pieces do not immediately reveal their secrets as readily as some of the composer’s more distinctive chamber music, the disc is still one will give much pleasure, particularly in performances as sympathetic as this.

SIBELIUS: FINLANDIA, THE OCEANIDES, EN SAGA, THE SWAN OF TUONELA, VALSE TRISTE, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Thomas Sondergard/Linn CKD 566  Admirers of the composer Sibelius have been well served over the years with multiple recordings of the symphonies and tone poems. In fact, the pieces on this disc have enjoyed a dazzling multiplicity of readings – many very distinguished, so something special is required to render any new entries competitive. That special quality is something that Thomas Sondergard and his forces have brought to the table with this very welcome issue. These are performances of immense sensitivity and (where required) dramatic forcefulness – The Oceanids in particular is given one of the most striking readings it has enjoyed in recent years. The sound quality is exemplary, although as ever with Linn these days, one is remnded that the company has abandoned its commitment to the SACD medium – Linn’s discs in surround sound were among the most impressive in the field, and it’s a cause for regret the company now issues stereo-only discs.

MAHLER: SYMPHONY NO. 6, Minnesota Orchestra, Osmo Vänskä, SACD BIS-2266  Over the years, Mahler’s Sixth has been particularly lucky on disc, with performances ranging from the steady to the fiery and dramatic (of the latter, Georg Solti’s fleet reading from the predigital era was a favourite of many; that approach was echoed to even greater effect on the more recent SACD recording by Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony. Set against the powerful commitment of that American recording, this new disc by Osmo Vänskä (in BIS sound that encompasses the massive dynamic range that Mahler created) is very successful, if less exhilarating. Vänskä has a reputation for engaging with even the most iconic scores at face value, avoiding preconceived ideas and ‘time-honoured’ traditions. His and the Minnesota Orchestra’s recording of Mahler’s Sixth on BIS follows the 2017 release of the composer’s Fifth Symphony. Nominated for a 2018 Grammy Award, his interpretation has been described as ‘at once committed and detached, intense and transcendentally timeless’.

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: CONCERTOS AND ORCHESTRAL WORKS, Soloists / Toronto Symphony Orchestra / Peter Oundjian/Chandos SACD CHSA 5201 The greatest possible advocacy is made here for some of Vaughan Williams’ less well-known music; this is an extremely attractive disc. The days when the music of Vaughan Williams was underrepresented on disc seem – thankfully — long distant (the situation began to change when Andre Previn and Sir Adrian Boult began much-acclaimed series of recordings of the symphonies). This unusual collection is a reminder of how popular this great English composer is in the 21st-century. The once-neglected Piano Concerto in particular has enjoyed a variety of recordings both in its one piano and two piano iterations, and this is one of the most impressive; ditto the charming oboe concerto. With this celebratory release completing his fourteen-year tenure as Music Director of the TSO, Peter Oundjian is supported by an all-Canadian cast of star soloists.

WILLIAM WORDSWORTH: ORCHESTRAL MUSIC, VOLUME ONE: Divertimento in D, Op. 58; Symphony No. 4 in E flat, Op. 54; Variations on a Scottish Theme, Op. 72; Symphony No. 8; Pax Hominibus, Op.117, Liepāja Symphony Orchestra, John Gibbons /Toccata TOCC 0480   Another composer who deserves more recognition for his undervalued but considerable achievement is the English composer William Wordsworth, and this inaugural disc in a new orchestral series will win William Wordsworth (a descendant of the poet) many friends. It’s big-boned British music which will immediately appeal to admirers of Malcom Arnold and Bax.

R. STRAUSS: AUS ITALIEN, WOLF-FERRARI: SUITE VENEZIANA, Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, Ariane Matiakh/Capriccio C5344  While this new disc is not in the surround sound medium, it is a demonstration that stereo-only recordings, while more sonically limited, can still do a great deal of justice to music as colourful as that recorded here. Aus Italien is something of a poor relation in terms of Strauss’s orchestral tone poems, lacking the popularity of Ein Heldenleben and Also Sprach Zarathustra. But Strauss aficionados are well aware that this is a charming and winning piece, particularly when played as enthusiastically as it is here. Orchestral colour abounds in the two works on this release from Capriccio: the first by a young Richard Strauss who was inspired in 1886 by the ruins of Rome to write his first major symphonic poem Aus Italien, and the second, Suite Veneziana, written half a century later by Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari, then approaching 60 years old and able to draw on his considerable experience as an opera composer. Conductor Ariane Matiakh draws excellent performances from the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra.

ROUSSEL: ORCHESTRAL WORKS, Kathryn Rudge / Alessandro Fisher / François Le Roux, CBSO Chorus / BBC Philharmonic / Yan Pascal Tortelier/ CHANDOS CHAN 10957  It is something of a mystery as to why music as colourful and inventive as this is not recorded and played more often, even though on the occasions when Roussel’s scores been set down, proper justice has been done. What’s more, it is hardly surprising that Yan Pascal Tortelier , long a master of the more resplendent items of the repertoire, presents the best possible advocacy for these pieces, particularly in the forte passages, are delivered with great conviction. Three of Roussel’s most remarkable compositions (notably the impressionistic Évocations), showcasing revelatory soloists and impeccable choral and orchestral forces are impressive in Tortelier’s hands. With this disc, the conductor celebrates a seventy-album discography on the Chandos label.

OPERA RECORDING OF THE MONTH: RESPIGHI: LA CAMPANA SOMMERSA, Valentina Farcas • Maria Luigia Borsi, Sopranos, Agostina Smimmero, Mezzo-soprano, Angelo Villari • Filippo Adami, Tenors, Thomas Gazheli, Bass-baritone, Teatro Lirico di Cagliari • Donato Renzetti, Conductor, Pier Francesco Maestrini, Stage Director/ Naxos: 2110571BLU-RAY   Surely it’s time that Respighi’s neglected operas began to receive their due? Few would argue that orchestral music was the composer’s forte – making him unusual among Italian composers — but there is exquisite writing to be found in his little-heard works for this stage – as this impressive issue attests. The opera La campana sommersa (‘The Sunken Bell’) is Respighi’s operatic masterpiece. A symbolist drama on a supernatural theme, it is steeped in beauty, mystery and foreboding, and orchestrated with the Romantic opulence familiar from his sumptuous trilogy of Roman tone-poems. Its triumph at the New York Metropolitan Opera in 1928 was repeated at La Scala, Milan, and this most recent production at the Teatro Lirico di Cagliari, world-renowned for its staging of rarities, was hailed for its ‘brilliant production’ and magnificent performances.

DAVID DIAMOND: SYMPHONY NO. 6 1†, ROUNDS FOR STRING ORCHESTRA 2 • ROMEO AND JULIET 2, Indiana University Chamber Orchestra 2 • Indiana University Philharmonic Orchestra 1 • Arthur Fagen, † WORLD PREMIERE RECORDING/Naxos  Of the list of American composers who were friends and colleagues of the late Leonard Bernstein, David Diamond — like his colleague William Schuman — deserves far more attention than he receives – particularly as his music is as approachable as it is intelligently conceived and orchestrated. This is modern music of real distinction, and this new disc affords the listener the premiere of a very intriguing piece. The three works on this recording were composed at the height of David Diamond’s popularity. Rounds is his most enduringly popular piece, whose simple economy of means prompted Aaron Copland to exclaim, “Oh, I wish I had written that piece.” The concert suite Romeo and Juliet explores the “innate beauty and pathos” of Shakespeare’s play. Taking its cue from the work of 19th-century Romantic composers, Symphony No. 6 is cyclical, the second and third movements deriving from material found in the first.

ARRANGEMENTS, English Symphony Orchestra, Kenneth Woods/Avie  If like me, you are the kind of listener who likes to hear orchestrations of pieces originally composed for other media, you are in luck with this very tempting new disc, which provides cleverly orchestrated versions of Elgar pieces written for other forces. Two years ago, conductor Kenneth Woods and his English Symphony Orchestra made the world-premiere recordings of composer-arranger Donald Fraser’s orchestral arrangement of Elgar’s Piano Quintet and choral version of Sea Pictures. The musicians reunited in Abbey Road’s Studio 2, with Fraser conducting the orchestra in an album of his arrangements of works ranging from Dowland and Scottish folk tunes to Liszt and Ravel, then Woods taking to the podium to conduct Fraser’s original Sinfonietta for Strings.

GINASTERA: ORCHESTRAL WORKS, VOL. 3, Xiayin Wang / BBC Philharmonic / Juanjo Mena/Chandos CHAN 10949  CHAN 10949  There was a time when admirers of Ginastera would have to investigate a variety of disparate sources in order to get their fix of the composer’s music. His neglect was always strange, given the fact that most of his works are full of colour and energy, with instant accessibility being a watchword. The fact that Chandos is now filling Ginastera gaps in generous fashion is not surprising given the company’s commitment to such vivid orchestral fare. The final volume in a series bringing Ginastera’s skills genius to a wider audience is consolidated here, with the bonus of exceptional piano playing from the virtuosic Xiayin Wang.

SMETANA: FESTIVE SYMPHONY, THE BARTERED BRIDE: OVERTURE AND DANCES, Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra • Darrell Ang/ Naxos: 8573672  Well-known and lesser-known Smetana rub shoulders here. Bedřich Smetana’s Festive Symphony was composed in 1854 when hopes for Emperor Franz Joseph becoming King of Bohemia were high. The splendid sounds of Smetana’s only formal symphony pre-echo later masterpieces such as Má Vlast, but his use of the Austrian Imperial anthem became unacceptable in the subsequent spirit of Czech nationalism, resulting in the work’s neglect. With its sparkling overture and lively rural dances, The Bartered Bride secured Smetana’s international reputation and, as the only Czech opera of its day to enter the standard repertoire, it became a beacon for the nation’s 19th century musical renaissance.

NOWOWIEJSKI: SYMPHONIES NOS.2 & 3, Poznań Philharmonic Orchestra, Łukasz Borowicz/DUX1446  If you are a music lover of the more adventurous kind who is prepared to look further afield than familiar repertoire, the classical recording industry is showing a willingness to tempt you in recent years – and nowhere more so than in this disc of a composer that most modern listeners will not have heard of. Nowowiejski is known (if at all) as a composer of organ and choral music. His symphonic output, overshadowed by the works of Karol Szymanowski (who was composing at the same time) is rarely performed and has not been available to a wider audience in CD format until now. The present album, thanks to the efforts of the Poznań Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Łukasz Borowicz, fills this gap and present an intriguing (if hardly essential) picture of Polish music of the interwar period. This DUX release features Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3 (Symphony No. 1 is lost).

MENDELSSOHN: A MIDSUMMER NIGHTS DREAM: OVERTURE & INCIDENTAL MUSIC, soloists, Budapest Festival Orchestra Ivan Fischer/Channel Classics CCSA 37418 SACD (See also Graham Williams review opposite)  If any one orchestra and conductor can point to a body of recorded work over the years with unalloyed pride, it’s the Budapest Festival Orchestra under Maestro Ivan Fischer. Their recordings of core repertoire and other less familiar pieces for the Channel Classics label had been of a nonpareil standard, with those few discs not instantly establishing themselves as market leaders still more distinguished than most of the competition. What’s more, these exemplary recordings have enjoyed typically impressive Channel surround sound of the kind that this company is celebrated for. So it’s hardly surprising this new disc of Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream instantly establishes itself as one of the most poetic, and nuanced the score has enjoyed in recent years (and, the piece has hardly been lacking in recent recorded outings). If that final ounce of drama and sensitivity that distinguished the classic Andre Previn recording is not always in evidence, and some of the tempi are eccentric, in every other respect, this is a good recommendation – not least for those looking for the piece in SACD sound.



RACHMANINOV: PIANO CONCERTOS 2 & 3, Yevgeny Sudbin, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo/BIS 2338SACD  From the composer himself onwards, recordings of Rachmaninov’s two most popular piano concertos (1 and 4 remaining less celebrated) have done considerable justice to these titans of the piano repertoire, and any new entry has to have a persuasive reason why it should be a contender. While Yevgeny Sudbin may not displace some of the talents of the past, this is a powerful, dramatic reading of both works, with the inestimable advantage of a typically impressive surround sound recording from BIS. Over the course of almost 10 years, Sudbin has been recording Rachmaninov’s works for piano and orchestra. The journey began in the U.S.A. in 2008 with the Fourth Piano Concerto, and what Classic FM Magazine described as ‘a glorious recording’ with the North Carolina Symphony Orchestra under Grant Llewellyn. For the Paganini Variations and Piano Concerto No. 1, Sudbin continued to Asia and highly praised collaborations with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and conductor Lan Shui. The grand finale of Sudbin’s Rachmaninov cycle combines the two best-loved concertos – No. 2 in C minor and No. 3 in D minor. His partners in these are the BBC Symphony Orchestra and chief conductor Sakari Oramo, the perfect companions.

BIZET: LES PÊCHEURS DE PERLES, Soloists, Orchestre Nationale de Lille, Alexandre Bloch/ PENTATONE PTC 5186 685 (2 discs)  The confusion over the various versions of Bizet’s colourful (if absurd) operatic masterpiece continues to this day, but those seeking the most authentic version will find that the new PENTATONE recording amply fulfils their needs. What’s more, it’s sung with great conviction and passion, doing full justice to those sinuous vocal lines. Les Pêcheurs de Perles contains a quintessentially French blend of lyricism, exoticism and drama, and the four soloists (Julie Fuchs as Leïla, Cyrille Dubois as Nadir, Florian Sempey as Zurga and Luc Bertin-Hugault as Nourabad) belong to today’s best performers for this specialist repertoire. Their vocal excellence is matched by the choral contributions of Les Cris de Paris. The rich sound palette of Les Pêcheurs is fully brought to life by the inspired playing of the Orchestre National de Lille under the baton of its new Music Director Alexandre Bloch.

WALTON: VIOLA CONCERTO, etc. James Ehnes / BBC SO / Edward Gardner CHANDOS SACD CHSA 5210 (See also Graham Williams’ review opposite)  The Edward Gardner series of recordings for Chandos have proved consistently excellent, maintaining the company’s long commitment to this glorious British composer. The selection on this latest disc, is particularly cherishable, given that none of the works on offer have been massively over-recorded. What is certain, however, is that these are among the most striking readings the pieces have ever enjoyed on disc, even stretching back as far as George Szell. ‘With Walton’s Viola Concerto, none of the writing is impossible but a lot of it is close. And in a way that is exactly where you want it to be: on the edge of technical limitations. There’s a tremendous amount of excitement in that.’ So says James Ehnes, who switches from his violin to tackle a monument in the viola’s literature, all superbly captured in surround sound

KORNGOLD: SYMPHONIC SERENADE, OP. 39 IN B FLAT MAJOR; SEXTET, OP. 10 IN D MAJOR (ARR. FOR STRINGS BY HARTMUT ROHDE), NFM Leopoldinum Orchestra, Hartmut Rohde/CPO 555138-2  It’s not difficult to spot the key reason for buying this disc: an orchestration of Korngold’s Sextet which does full justice to the composer’s full-blooded manner (if without that final ounce of mastery that he himself might have provided). For lovers of the ripely romantic music of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, this is something of a treat. Not only is the performance of the Symphonic Serenade by Rohde and his forces more pointed than the otherwise admirable one by the BBC Philharmonic under Bamert (Chandos), we are given what is essentially a new Korngold orchestral piece: a sympathetic orchestration of the Sextet Opus 10. The arrangement for string orchestra by the conductor is perfectly attuned to the composer’s Straussian (but still highly individual) compositional character, and it’s a delightful piece — without replacing the original.

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: THE PASSIONS OF VAUGHAN WILLIAMS, Philharmonia Orchestra, Richard Hickox, Rachel Roberts, Alistair Mackie, Schola Cantorum of Oxford, James Burton/CRUXGZ001DVD   The days when Vaughan Williams’ achievement as one of the great English composers had slightly slipped out of modern favour are, thankfully, in the past. Almost every note that he composed has found (or is finding) its way onto disc. This Crux selection is a particularly enjoyable collection, performed with great affection by a variety of artists (including the late Richard Hickox) – and make for an intriguing programme.

MESSIAEN: CATALOGUE D’OISEAUX, Pierre-Laurent Aimard PENTATONE SACD PTC 5186670: Triple SACD + BONUS DVD  Classical CD Choice ran an interview with the pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard last month about this very set, and it’s heartening to report that the discs themselves do full justice to the pianist’s vision of his teacher Messiaen’s work. The performances are full of nuance (with perhaps a slight caveat that the pianist’s vocal interjections sometimes interpose themselves over the music). The renowned French pianist inaugurates his PENTATONE commitments with Olivier Messiaen’s Catalogue d’Oiseaux. The pianist had intimate ties to the composer himself and his wife, Yvonne Loriod, for whom Messiaen wrote the Catalogue. This is Aimard’s first recording of Messiaen’s most extensive, demanding and colourful piano composition. The luxurious CD box set contains an accompanying bonus DVD, on which Aimard shares his vast knowledge of and love for Messiaen’s work from behind the piano.

BIZET: DJAMILEH – COMIC OPERA IN ONE ACT,• Jennifer Feinstein, Eric Barry, George Mosley, Poznan Chamber Choir, Poznań Philharmonic Orchestra conductor Łukasz Borowicz/DUX 1412  While PENTATONE have supplied an exemplary reading of Bizet’s more familiar opera The Pearl Fishers (see above), it’s good to see the more neglected Djamileh appearing in a fine new reading on disc. And this is a very charming take on the one-act opera with a libretto by Louis Gallet. Djamileh tells an oriental love story between the title slave Djamileh and Cairo sultan Haroun. The plot, bringing to mind the atmosphere of One Thousand and One Nights, is a quite typical example of Romantic fascinations with the East. From the very beginning it raised Bizet’s doubts, who considered it to be too difficult for a stage adaptation. However, the artistic craft of the creator of Carmen balanced the libretto’s deficiencies, surrounding the story of oriental lovers with a suggestive sound aura, achieved thanks to an original instrumentation and bold, chromatised harmonic language. The craftsmanship of Jennifer Feinstein, performing the title part, allows the listener to enjoy all values of this little known opera.

MORYTO: WORKS FOR ORCHESTRA,The Witold Lutosławski Chamber Philharmonic in Łomza, Jan Miłosz Zarzycki, DUX  For those with adventurous tastes, this could be a CD well worth their time. This DUX CD is a review of Stanisław Moryta’s latest orchestral work, an outstanding contemporary composer, organist and teacher. Born in 1947, professor Moryto can boast of an exceptionally versatile artistic publishing activity, focused on Polish organ music and rich compositional output. Listening to the recording made by members of the Chamber Philharmonic Witold Lutosławski in Łomża, under the direction of Jan Miłosz Zarzycki, the listener will encounter original elaborations of motifs from Kurpie music and then follow the extensive dialogues of solo instruments in the Concerto for percussion, harp and string orchestra. Four Pieces in Polish Style for String Orchestra, Seven Kurpie Sings for Soprano and Orchestra, Suite for String Orchestra, Concerto for Percussion

BARTOK & KODALY: CONCERTOS FOR ORCHESTRA, Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, Jakub Hrůša/PENTATONE PTC5186626  For a long time, Georg Solti’s readings of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra were nigh-definitive, but in the SACD years, we have been provided with new and dramatic readings. That’s the case here, although earlier readings (such as the recent Hungaroton recording by Kocsis) are not displaced. The Kodaly Concerto for Orchestra is more of a rarity, although listeners new to the piece should be aware that it is minor work by him, unlike the Bartok which is one of the composer’s key pieces. These exuberant pieces are collected in vivid performances from the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by the podium sensation Jakub Hrůša on this release.


FREDERICK DELIUS: PIANO CONCERTO IN C MINOR (1907), Mark Bebbington, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Jan Latham-Koenig/ Somm 269  While the well-known the first concerto of Grieg is given a strong reading here, it is the orchestrated sketches – and solo piano passages – of the composer’s unfinished second piano Concerto which is the drawing point here. In the event, rather disappointingly, it turns out to be only eight minutes or so of music, and hardly indicates what the finished work would have been had the composer completed it. Nevertheless, it is intriguing listening for those who love Grieg, and the other piece here, the Delius piano concerto, is given any very sympathetic reading.

KARAYEV: SYMPHONY NO. 1, VIOLIN CONCERTO *, Janna Gandelman, Violin *,Kiev Virtuosi Symphony Orchestra, Dmitry Yablonsky/Naxos 8.573722  While many music lovers are content to spend their listening time in the company of old favourites from Beethoven to Respighi, there are those of us who are always on the lookout for something new to tickle the ear. New, that is, in the sense that while the music may be composed sometime in the past, it has largely remained unfamiliar. Case in point? Kara Karayev was one of the most prominent figures in the music of 20th-century Azerbaijan, and an inspiration to subsequent generations of Azerbaijani composers. His eloquently expressive and tautly dramatic First Symphony is a significant work in Karayev’s output, reflecting both the harmonies and melodic characteristics of the South Caucasus region and, in its orchestral brilliance, the influence of his mentor Shostakovich. The Violin Concerto shows a notable shift in style, exploring the serial techniques that add astringency and inventive depth to Karayev’s already richly coloured and vividly diverse palette.

VIVALDI: THE QUATTRO STAGIONI, Brecon Baroque, Rachel Podger/Channel Classics SACD CCSSA40318 (See also Graham Williams’ review opposite)  Not another Four Seasons, I hear you cry? Yes – and a very welcome one, given the absolute (and very typical) commitment to the music shown by Rachel Podger and the Brecon Baroque. Earlier readings by these forces have made very persuasive cases for the various scores that they have tackled, but they have set themselves a particularly challenging task in this case, with the music so overfamiliar for most listeners that a truly fresh and energetic approach is required – precisely what The Red Priest gets here. The sheer athletic prowess of the players provides music-making that banishes all thoughts of those interminable waits on phone lines with ‘Spring’ on a perpetual loop. We can hear it afresh in this new recording, which becomes one of the definitive readings at a stroke. Together with the star players of Brecon Baroque, Rachel Podger guides us through the seasons of nature and life. The musical range is sensational and matched all the way by Jared Sacks’s luminous and emotionally engaged recorded sound.

Also worthy of attention are a brace of new discs with notable individual qualities. The Audite label has a colourful and idiomatic quartet of readings of Strauss (RICHARD STRAUSS: MACBETH, DON JUAN, TOD AND VERKLARUNG AND THE FESTMARSCH IN C) with the Staatskaplle Wein conducted by Kiril Karabits, while the Alpha imprint boasts a very competitive reading of Scandinavian works (SIBELIUS, RAUTAVAARA: VIOLIN CONCERTOS) played by the virtuoso Tobias Feldmann and the Orchestre Philharmonique conducted by the authoritative Jean-Jaques Kandorow; there are many impressive readings of the Sibelius in the catalogue, but this is a real contender. From Linn, BIBER: THE MYSTERY SONATAS is granted an emotional reading by the Boston Baroque with Christina Day Martinson and Martin Pearlman, while from Les Soloistes de L’OSM, we are given intriguing versions of the BEETHOVEN’S SEPTET and a chamber version of STRAUSS’S TILL EULENSPIEGEL on the Analekta label. Finally, impressive readings of RAVEL, FRANCK, LIGETI AND MESSIAEN: CHAMBER WORKS from the Duo Gazzana on the ECM New Series imprint; the attention to detail on this fine disc is fastidious, with highly impressive results.

Debussy: A Painter in Sound by Stephen Walsh, Faber, £20

If you are an admirer of the greatest of all French Impressionist composers (with Ravel running him a close second), your library will probably sport several biographies of Claude Debussy. So why should Stephen Walsh’s new attempt to assess the life and achievement of the composer be worthy of your attention? The answer — quite simply – is that it is one of the most astute and sympathetic studies of the composer that you are likely to read. In fact, Walsh’s own description, ‘A biography of sorts’, suggests the particularly astute balancing act he performs between celebrating the exquisite music and the turbulent life of this difficult, temperamental man. Walsh’s study, couched in elegant prose, never falls into the simply sequential. With fresh insights into such masterpieces as La Mer as well as little-known works such as Debussy’s unfinished opera based on Poe’s ‘Fall of the House of Usher’, this becomes at a stroke a definitive guide to the life and work of a great French composer.

Barry Forshaw