Graham Williams Reviews

Superlative Schumann from Ticciati

SCHUMANN: THE SYMPHONIES, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Robin Ticciati/LINN CKD450 (2) SACD Judging by the number of recorded cycles of Schumann Symphonies that have appeared in the last year or so from conductors as diverse as Simon Rattle, Parvo Järvi, Thomas Dausgaard et al., it would appear that record companies believe that the public has an insatiable appetite for new versions of these works on disc. Nevertheless, whilst the market may be reaching saturation point, there is always room to accommodate a set as brilliantly performed and recorded as this latest one from the charismatic Robin Ticciati and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Having been greatly impressed with Ticciati’s performances of Berlioz, Brahms and Bruckner both in the concert hall and on disc I was keen to see how he tackled the music of one his favourite composers about which he colourfully writes “Struggle, love, suicide, drinking, prostitutes, fragrance, flowers, poetry ecstasy, passion…for me the Schumann symphonies have everything in them that define Romanticism”. Suffice it to say I was not disappointed. Continue reading

First-rate Mahler 9 from Stenz and Oehms

MAHLER: SYMPHONY NO.9, ADAGIO FROM SYMPHONY NO.10, Gürzenich Orchestra of Cologne, Marcus Stenz/Oehms OC 654 SACD  This release marks the completion of the Mahler symphony cycle by Marcus Stenz and the Gürzenich Orchestra of Cologne. In addition to Mahler’s nine symphonies and the ‘Adagio’ from his unfinished 10th, Stenz’s cycle, has also encompassed a very fine disc of Mahler’s ‘Wunderhorn’ Lieder. The whole enterprise has been notable for the conductor’s fresh and unmannered readings of these works. Tempi, in general, have been on the fast side, no bad thing in Mahler, and the combination of committed orchestral playing and opulent recorded sound makes this cycle stand out even amongst the embarras de richesses that Mahler aficionados have available to them on disc. These qualities are once again evident in the performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony that occupies the first disc of this two disc set which was recorded in the ample acoustic of Studio Stolberger Strasse, Cologne in January 2014. To be able to listen to the symphony in one unbroken span of 78’12” is hugely advantageous for the listener, something that is not always the case on rival recordings. Stenz gives a riveting and strongly delineated performance of the opening ‘Andante comodo’ (26.48), one of Mahler’s finest creations, moving convincingly between the calm resignation of the opening theme and its intensely passionate counterpart. Stenz is perfectly attuned to the ironies of the “leisurely Ländler” (14.51) that is the work’s scherzo, without undue exaggeration of its gawky rhythms. Some may find it slightly under-characterised, but I found it refreshing and full of humour especially when compared to some of the ponderous accounts found elsewhere. The mocking Rondo-Burleske (12.36) is appropriately hard driven, testing the mettle of the Gürzenich players to the full, while the contrasting tranquil middle section is beautifully expressive and undeniably poignant. As is expected the final ‘Adagio’ (23.53) is deeply moving, but never overwrought, in Stenz’s performance; the fervency of the opulent string textures at the beginning of this movement gradually giving way to the evanescence of the closing pages. Continue reading

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.

 

Beethoven from Harmonia Mundi is CD Set of the Month

Korngold jacket

KORNGOLD STRING SEXTET, etc., Camerata Freden/Tacet Blu-ray Audio 0198-5 Some may regard it as a gimmick, but there is no denying that the placing of individual instruments in each surround channel (as Tacet is wont to do) makes for a completely immersive experience for the listener. And Korngold’s emotive chamber music is here delivered with great sensitivity in Tacet’s SACD mix. Now the company has moved from SACD onto Blu-ray audio, Tacet provides the best possible advocacy for the medium. RESPIGHI: BELKIS: QUEEN OF SHEBA complete ballet/Stella Doufexis (mezzo soprano) Metodi Moratzaliev (tenor) Julia Jentsch (narrator) Tschechischer Philharmonischer Philharmonic Choir Brno, Stuttgarter Philharmoniker conductor Gabriel Feltz/Blu-ray Dreyer Gaido BR21081/4260014870815  A cherishable world premiere. If you can try to tune out the dull and unnecessary narration (in German), this is an absolute must for admirers of Respighi. In June 2007 Gabriel Feltz was conducting in Milan and during a break in rehearsals visited a well-stocked music shop and made an amazing discovery – the score from a ballet by Respighi which he had never heard of: Belkis, Queen of Sheba. Premiered in 1932, it was one of the most extravagant ballet productions ever staged with over 200 musicians and at least as many dancers. After a few performances, the work was forgotten until it was rediscovered by Gabriel Feltz and the decision made to film the concert. The recording is released on Blu-ray and DVD.  CLASSICAL CD CHOICE CD SET OF THE MONTH: BEETHOVEN COMPLETE STRING QUARTETS, Tokyo String Quartet/Hamonia Mundi SACD 807641-8 (8 SACDs).  As each individual episode in this complete traversal of Beethoven’s quartets has appeared, critics have largely speaking been immensely enthusiastic, but arriving as a collective set (in superb SACD sound) this will clearly become the collection of choice for those seeking the a key modern expressions of Beethoven’s genius in the quartet format. Individual quibbles aside, and there are one or two controversial tempi), this is an absolutely magnificent set; Beethovenians need not hesitate.  PROKOFIEV SYMPHONIES 1&2, São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop/Naxos Blu-ray audio NBD 0044 The sheer impact of the sound on these dramatic and idiomatic performances renders them first choice in this repertoire, although there are rival sets under way.  WALTON, HINDEMITH CELLO CONCERTOS São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, Christian Poltera, Frank Shipway/BIS SACD  A welcome debut in the surround sound medium for two of the most distinctive of modern era cello concertos played with immense sensitivity and grace. A warning, though, the cellist Christian Poltera takes loud and intrusive inhalations of breath before most leading phrases which will rule the disc hors de combat for many listeners.  RACHMANINOV: TRIO ELEGIAQUE, The Borodin Trio/Audite SACD 92691  The Borodin Trio, sensitive as ever in Rachmaninov. Recommendable, but there are problems, however. In order to tame the very close piano sound of the Audite recording, the violin and cello here sound distinctly muted. Nevertheless, the performance here is exemplary, finding all the nuances of the composer’s highly individual sound world.  GLIERE: SYMPHONY NO.3, IL’YA MUROMETS, Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, JoAnn Falletta, Naxos Blu-ray audio NBD 0041 Glorious though the sound stage presented on most SACD discs is, it is equalled by the high-definition audio content on such Blu-Ray audio discs as this cherishable new entry from Naxos? The disc comes in 24 bit 96KHZ stereo and surround sound – all of which greatly enhance the stunning orchestral picture presented here. The epic symphony is given a truly exhilarating reading by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra under JoAnn Falletta. The piece is, of course, the calling card for the composer, and has enjoyed a variety of readings (of different merit) over the years; this is undoubtedly one that balances the more dramatic, brass-heavy sections of the music with its subtler, more poetic moments and may make people hungry for more Gliere from this particular combination of artists.  BEETHOVEN COMPLETE PIANO SONATAS, Mari Kodama/PentaTone SACD PTC 5186 4190 (10 SACDs)  First of all: the piano sound. Rarely in the history of recorded music has the sound of the piano been rendered with such felicity as the PentaTone engineers have achieved here. The effects is of an instrument in a modest sized hall with impeccable acoustics, and renders with the greatest exactitude of the instrument utilised here. As for the intensely musical performances themselves, individual issues have been generally well received, although no one has claimed that Mari Kodoma rivals such masters as Daniel Barenboim in representation of this greatest body of work for the piano. Nevertheless, there is much to enjoy here, and lovers of the keyboard will be continually astonished by the fidelity of the sound.  MENDELSSOHN IN BIRMINGHAM VOL. 2 /Chandos SACD CHSA 5139  These sensitive and ebullient performances have not been received without reservation (and previous classic performances have been cited in comparison), but they remain useful and attractive for those collecting Mendelssohn symphonies in typically impressive Chandos surround sound.  RÜTTI: SYMPHONY, DIETHELM:- THE LAST WORKS FOR STRING ORCHESTRA, SPCON, Rainer Held/Guild, GMCD7407/2SPCON  While his music will not be to everyone’s taste, Carl Rütti has established himself internationally as the leading Swiss composer of his generation, with a number of fine  recordings of his large-scale choral-orchestral and organ music, and  this magnificent new release reinforces his reputation with the world premiere recording of his major symphonic work, the Symphony ‘The Visions of Niklaus von Flüe’ a large-scale composition for soprano solo, organ, percussion and chamber orchestra on a Mahlerian scale in terms  of length, a score which demonstrates the composer’s mastery of large-scale creation. It is coupled with a major work by Caspar Diethelm, one of the composer’s final scores. 2 CDs for the price of 1.  ELGAR: THE DREAM OF GERONTIUS, SEA PICTURES, Soloists, Andrew Davis/Chandos SACD CHSA5140(2)  As Graham Williams’ separate review (up shortly) attests, this is a sterling Gerontius, and I largely concur with his very positive judgment. However, I feel about this Chandos version much as I did concerning the recent (excellent) PentaTone. Terrific sound, moving performance – but it’s not just Barbirolli’s conducting on the vintage EMI set or Janet Baker’s Angel whom their successors cannot compare. Both of the newer tenors produce a kind of beautiful, if generalised tenor sound with good attention to the words, while the sometimes–criticised Richard Lewis (for Barbirolli) made every single nuance and change of mood count; there simply isn’t anyone to compare with him. Similarly, Janet Baker’s recording of Sea Pictures-remains the benchmark for this piece, although Sarah Connolly does full justice to them – and what’s more, the use of the organ part in the songs add immeasurably to the impact.  BERG: BY ARRANGEMENT MUSIC FOR STRINGS /Toccata Classics Toccata 0247  So slender is the body of purely orchestral work by the composer Berg that aficionados will be grateful for this unusual collection. It features orchestration of the Piano Sonata along with the Lyric Suite in the composer’s own arrangement supplemented by that of other hands. Performances are nuanced and characterful, although it has to be said that Berg’s restricted sound world here undoubtedly means that the listeners might be better advised not to play the whole disc at a single sitting. BLACKFORD/SAINT-SAENS: THE GREAT ANIMAL ORCHESTRA, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Martyn Brabbins/Nimbus Alliance B00LH119DFY  The use of the recorded sound of animals in the Blackford piece here may make this a useful CD to introducing orchestral music to children; adult listeners, however, will be attracted by the new orchestration (also by Blackford) of Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals.  ORGAN POLYCHROME: THE FRENCH SCHOOL, Jan Kraybill/ Reference RecordingsRR-133HDCD  This premier solo recording of French masterworks for the organ is something of a revelation, as much for the thoroughly individual character of the music as for the typically wide-ranging Reference Recordings sound.  BAX: PHANTASY, ETC., BBC Philharmonic, Sir Andrew Davis/Chandos CHAN 10829  Can there really be more of Bax’s more obscure orchestral music to be dusted off and recorded? Yes, it seems there is – and this collection of little-known works by the composer proves not to be just chippings from the work desk but thoroughly characteristic and attractive pieces. Admittedly, there are assuredly no undiscovered masterpieces here, but Baxians will want to supplement their collections with his disc (and it’s surely safe to assume that Bax enthusiast will already possess the matchless box of the symphonies conducted by Vernon Handley, also from Chandos?). PROKOFIEV VISIONS FUGITIVES Camerata Nordica conductor/BIS SACD 2126  It is particularly cheering to welcome this first appearance in the surround sound medium of the Rudolf Barshai arrangement for string orchestra of Prokofiev’s knotty Visions Fugitives. And if that were not enough, the companion pieces are almost equally interesting, notably Bartok’s lively divertimento strings (although the Webern Five Piece may be for his admirers only).  MENDELSSOHN: SYMPHONY NO. 3, SCOTTISH/THE HEBRIDES/SCHUMANN PIANO CONCERTO, London Symphony Orchestra, Maria Joao Pires, London Symphony Orchestra, John Eliot Gardiner/LSO Live SACD LSO 0765  More Mendelssohn, this time from the impressive forces of the LSO under John Eliot Gardiner. While the Barbican acoustic here is less subtle than that on the Chandos disc discussed above, the performances have more fire. Listeners will have to decide for themselves which of the two approaches they prefer. Both have their virtues, but Gardiner is the more dynamic of the two.  FILM AND TV SPORTING THEMES, Various Artists, Silva Screen Records, SILCD 1457  If, like this reviewer, you have zero interest in sport, the appeal of this disc has to be purely musical, and there are several very attractive pieces here, notably John Williams’ ebullient at Olympic theme, although the spirits drop with the inevitable Chariots of Fire – the continuing success of the piece (beyond its associations) remains inexplicable.  ONE TOUCH OF VENUS, George Schaefer, director/VAI DVD  The cinema is littered with great musicals that were shorn of some of their best songs in the transition from stage to screen, from Rodgers and Hart’s Babes in Arms and Leonard Bernstein’s On The Town to Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. That doesn’t, of course, mean that the resulting films, were not be solid pieces in their own right, but aficionados of the musical always regret this filleting process. The film of Kurt Weill’s musical One Touch of Venus (written with the participation of top American humourists Ogden Nash and SJ Perelman), though shaved of most of its songs, was a perfectly creditable piece of work with a radiant Ava Gardener, but it is a real pleasure to welcome this famous – but previously difficult to see — 1955 telecast of the show which retains most of the songs and even the Agnes DeMille ballets. It’s an absolute must for admirers of musicals (crude though the technical quality is), not least for the presence of Janet Blair, incandescent in the title role and being allowed to sing such Kurt Weill tunes as Speak Low.

 

 

Limited Edition Wagner Box from PentaTone

wagnerIn 2010, PentaTone decided to embark on the ambitious project of recording the ten major Wagner operas with the same musical forces. Never before had a record company recorded all of Wagner’s operas with the same orchestra, choir and conductor, even the same producer, within a period of two and a half years.  On top of that, all of the operas, including the Ring Cycle, were recorded for the first time in multi-channel surround sound and with the highest technical quality. Continue reading