Graham Williams Reviews

A New Petrouchka from Chandos

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


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.

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

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

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

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

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

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


PentaTone Revisits Quad Classics; Plus Ravel, Bach & Grieg


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


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 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.