Graham Williams Reviews

New from LSO Live & Tacet

MENDELSSOHN: SYMPHONY NO. 2 (LOBESGESANG), John Eliot Gardiner/ LSO Live LSO0803  Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s riveting survey of Mendelssohn’s orchestral works with the London Symphony Orchestra (the 5 Symphonies, Overtures and the Incidental Music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream) has yielded some of the most compelling releases on the LSO Live label in the past few years. It now reaches a triumphant conclusion with this magisterial account of the Symphony No. 2 (Lobesgesang) taken from two concerts at the Barbican given on 16th and 20th of October 2016. Continue reading

Opulent Schmidt & Mahler from MDG & Channel

SCHMIDT: SYMPHONY NO. 2, R. STRAUSS: FESTLICHES PRÄLUDIUM, Orchester Bonn, Stefan Blunier/MDG SACD 937 2006-6  Those with a penchant for sumptuous and grandiloquent late-Romantic orchestral works should investigate without delay this latest MDG release from Stefan Blunier and his fine Beethoven Orchester Bonn that couples the 2nd Symphony of Franz Schmidt with Richard Strauss’s imposing Festliches Präludium Op 61. Both these works received their premieres in 1913 and with this recording make their debut on SACD in high resolution sound. Continue reading

Striking SACD Dvorak from Bosch on Coviello

DVORAK: SYMPHONY NO.1, Staatsphilharmonie Nurnberg, Marcus Bosch/Coviello COV 91718  Over the years, a great many of the gaps in the surround sound discography have been plugged, but there have still been some surprising omissions. In the case of the great Czech master Dvorak, for instance, eight of his nine symphonies have been available for some time in SACD format, with just one in stereo only, the Brahmsian First Symphony. But now, the under the auspices of the Staatsphilharmonie Nurnberg under Marcus Bosch, that omission has been rectified. What’s more, this is no placeholder performance, but a reading of great energy and zest – the qualities that have distinguished other discs by this conductor. Bosch is a musician unafraid to take certain unorthodox choices – his recent set of Bruckner symphonies, for instance, utilised some daringly accelerated speeds. But such was the rigour and conviction with which he employed them, many listeners were persuaded that this was a perfectly legitimate approach to a composer normally granted stately tempi. The methodology employed with Dvorak’s First here is not quite as radical, but does perform a perfectly legitimate piece of orchestral surgery on the work. As mentioned above, the symphony was composed when Dvorak was still under the spell of Brahms, and most performances have tended to stress that connection. Bosch, however, suggests the direction that the composer’s imagination was to take subsequently and renders it more of a brother (or sister) to the more colourful (in a specifically Czech sense) to the later symphonies. This approach is largely convincing and this is among the most striking performances the symphony has enjoyed. If there is a caveat, it is the fact that no room has been found for a fill-up – Neeme Järvi on his impressive Chandos reading includes the symphonic poem The Hero’s Song. Nevertheless, this is a small quibble, and Dvorak admirers should not hesitate.

Spruced-up Strauss

RICHARD STRAUSS: SALOME & ELEKTRA, Birgit Nilsson, Soloists, Vienna Philharmonic, Georg Solti/Universal Blu-ray Audio 4831498  & 4831494 (both 3 discs, inc. 1 Blu-ray audio) Audiophiles and opera lovers alike have been fervently hoping that Universal might give the same Blu-ray audio spruce-up to these classic Decca sets – for many years the definitive reading of Richard Strauss’s operas – that the company had accorded to such recordings as Karajan’s Madama Butterfly and Solti’s Ring. Now those wistful wishes have come to fruition and we may hear anew – in astonishingly detailed pre-digital sound – what Nilsson, Solti and producer John Culshaw achieved in their heyday. If the latter’s famous aural effects now seem like a certain gilding of the lily, there is no gainsaying the power and drama of the performances, with Nilsson at her matchless best. And both operas are complete on one Blu-ray disc each (with CDs also included). A Richard Strauss cornucopia indeed.

SACD OF THE MONTH: SZYMANOWSKI, KARŁOWICZ: VIOLIN CONCERTOS, Tasmin Little / BBC Symphony Orchestra / Edward Gardner Chandos CHSA 5185  There have been previous performances available on CD of this evocative (and somewhat neglected) Polish music, including versions on the Chandos label, as is this one – although that was in stereo only. But here we have (in glorious surround sound) performances of these pieces which at a stroke become nigh-definitive, with the persuasive combination of Little’s strikingly poetic playing and Gardner’s typically incisive approach to the subtle orchestral writing. What’s more, with three concerti on offer, this represents something of a bargain with its generous playing time. This SACD recording follows performances that The Guardian described as ‘a thrilling show of ferocity and feistiness’, given by the same forces in January at the Barbican. All three pieces were written within the space of a generation (1902, 1916, and 1933), and yet they belong to quite different worlds.

SHOSTAKOVICH: SYMPHONY NO. 5/BARBER: ADAGIO FOR STRINGS, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Manfred Honeck/Reference Recordings SACD RRFR-724  One might argue that the most recorded of Shostakovich’s symphonies hardly needs another reading, but that’s not taking into account the muscular approach that Manfred Honeck takes here, continuing his unbroken series of impressive recordings for the Reference label. If Honeck concentrates more on the sheer elemental power of the piece rather than its moments of menacing repose (as opposed to Dmitrij Kitajenko’s memorable reading of the Fifth as part of his complete cycle), this is music that responds well to that particular orientation. If the fill-up, yet another performance of Barber’s Adagio might occasion some disappointment, it should be noted that this is a particularly sensitive reading of Barber’s calling card piece, even if one wishes that Honeck might have chosen something Russian as accompaniment — Glinka’s Ruslan and Ludmilla overture, for instance. Customarily exemplary audiophile sound enhances Honeck’s performance. The conductor’s notes reminds us that Joseph Stalin’s Soviet government was offended by the composer’s previous works. Under threat of arrest or banishment to Siberia, Shostakovich devised a new, less-complex compositional style for the 5th Symphony, still full of irony and double meaning, to appease Stalin and appeal to the common people.

GRANADOS: GOYESCAS, José Menor, piano/IBS 82017  Granados’ masterpiece for piano has been fortunate in its recordings over the years, not least with what many regard as the definitive take, that by Alicia de la Rocha on Decca. This new version from José Menor is a contender, displaying both grace and sensitivity, although the recording of the piano sound has as a slight restriction in the upper register.

STRAUSS: THE COMPLETE SONGS, VOLUME 8, Nicky Spence, Rebecca Evans, Roger Vignoles/Hyperion CDA68185  Many listeners would argue that the greatest songwriters in the classical repertoire are Schubert and Strauss, and both composers have enjoyed copious recorded attention over the years. This particular cycle from Hyperion is a notable addition to the lists, with singers of great sensitivity impeccably accompanied by the always reliable Roger Vignoles. The pianist astutely notes that Strauss’s songs cannot be played ‘without a vivid sense of the orchestral colours and textures that they imply’, so how better to conclude our series of the complete songs than with the piano-accompanied versions of the Vier letzte Lieder? These wondrous valedictions are the summation of a great composer’s love affair with the voice, written at the very end of a long creative life.’

PICKARD: SYMPHONY NO. 5; SIXTEEN SUNRISES; CONCERTANTE VARIATIONS FOR WIND QUINTET, TIMPANI AND STRINGS; TOCCATA (MONTEVERDI), TRANSCRIPTION FOR ENSEMBLE AFTER CLAUDIO MONTEVERDI, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Martyn Brabbins/BIS2261  The BIS label has something of a knack for discovering unfamiliar music worthy of our attention, and that is (with some reservations) what it has once again achieved here. Although Pickard’s music perhaps lacks that final ounce of distinction, it is still highly professional and impeccably judged in terms of its balance of orchestral forces Born in 1963, John Pickard is best known for a series of powerful orchestral and instrumental works; previous recordings of his music on BIS have received critical acclaim. The present disc brings together some of Pickard’s most recent orchestral compositions, in performances by two of his long-term collaborators: the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and conductor Martyn Brabbins. The opening work is Symphony No. 5, which was composed in 2014 with these performers in mind. Lasting some thirty minutes, the symphony is in a single movement. The symphony is followed by Sixteen Sunrises; the title of the piece refers to the number of sunrises that can be observed during a twenty-four-hour period from the International Space Station (ISS), as it orbits the earth.

RAVEL: DAPHNIS ET CHLOÉ, UNE BARQUE SUR L’OCÉAN, PAVANE POUR UNE INFANTE DÉFUNTE, Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg, Gustavo Gimeno/PENTATONE PTC 5186 652  Over the years, Ravel’s masterpiece has been particularly fortunate in its various recordings, with even the SACD medium now able to boast several rivals. If this new performance doesn’t quite dislodge such predecessors as Haitink and Gergiev, it is still a highly commendable. Gimeno conjures much of the sensuality of the music. Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé is widely regarded as his greatest orchestral masterpiece and one of the 20th century’s finest ballet scores. This vast musical fresco with its shimmering harmonies, magical diaphanous textures and spectacular conclusion is compellingly realised by Gustavo Gimeno and the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg in this eagerly awaited release from PentaTone. The album also contains the haunting and exquisite Pavane pour une infante défunte and the vividly scored Une barque sur l’océan. Stravinsky regarded Daphnis et Chloé as “not only Ravel’s best work, but also one of the most beautiful products of French music” and it’s easy to see why.

STRAUSS: CONCERTO IN D MAJOR FOR OBOE AND SMALL ORCHESTRA, TRV 292; SERENADE IN E FLAT MAJOR, TRV 106; SONATINA NO. 2 IN E FLAT MAJOR (FRÖHLICHE WERKSTATT), TRV 291, Alexei Ogrintchouk, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Winds of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Andris Nelsons/ BIS2163 Admirers of Richard Strauss (a group I belong to) have an inordinate fondness for the works on this particular disc, and these readings even rival such illustrious predecessors as Rudolf Kempe. As the Second World War was coming to an end, the eighty-year-old Strauss was working on his Oboe Concerto and Sonatina No. 2 for winds, as well as the Metamorphosen for strings. While the latter work was an explicit response to the destruction Strauss was witnessing, in the Concerto and the Sonatina the composer seemed to be turning his mind away from the events surrounding him. To an extent, one might say that Strauss at the end of his life returned to the musical models of his youth. It is therefore fitting that these two works frame the Serenade in E flat major for wind ensemble, composed more than sixty years earlier in the tradition of entertainment music by Schubert and Mendelssohn.

DEBUSSY: LA MER, ARIETTES OUBLIÉES, FAURÉ: PELLÉAS ET MELISANDE, Robin Ticciati, Magdalena Kozena, DSO Berlin, Linn CKD550  For admirers of the Linn label, It is a real source of regret that the splendid series of recordings by the conductor Robin Ticciati from the company in truly superb surround sound have now been downgraded to stereo only, although (it has to be said) it is stereo of superlative quality. And the performances are as nonpareil as ever — as with this intriguing coupling. The rarity here is the orchestration by Brett Dean of Debussy’s songs Ariettes Oubliées, sensitively sung by Magdalena Kozena and which in this new iteration add an intriguing new piece to the recorded repertoire of the French composer.

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: THE POISONED KISS (OVERTURE); THREE PORTRAITS FROM ‘THE ENGLAND OF ELIZABETH’; BUCOLIC SUITE; IN THE FEN COUNTRY; FANTASIA ON SUSSEX FOLK TUNES, Martin Rummel, Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz, Karl-Heinz Steffens /Capriccio C5314  It should be said at the start that there are rival performances of most of this music which have an ounce more fluidity and feeling but as a program, this is a particularly successful issue, bringing together several rarities that will attract new listeners. Around the beginning of the 20th century, Ralph Vaughan Williams, together with his friend Gustav Holst, deliberately began to free his compositional style from ‘German influences’, moving towards a more British musical style and finding inspirational models in English folk music. Most of the works recorded here are lesser-known pieces by the composer, but each clearly reflects Vaughan Williams’ uniquely personal style.

MOZART: PIANO CONCEROS 25 &26, Francesco Piemontesi, piano, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Andrew Manze/Linn CKD544   Manze’s adroitness as orchestral accompanist remain as ironclad as ever with these Mozart concertos granted a very persuasive advocacy, even in the teeth of some impressive competition. Described as a ‘stellar Mozartian’ Francesco Piemontesi finds a perfect partner in the Scottish Chamber Orchestra whose impeccable credentials are widely acknowledged. Conductor Andrew Manze, well known as a HIP pioneer, shares Piemontesi’s approach to creating an authentic performance, making this somewhat of a Mozart dream team. Francesco Piemontesi is a pianist of exceptional refinement of expression, which is allied to a consummate technical skill.

STRAUSS: ALSO SPRACH ZARATHUSTRA, MAHLER: TOTENFEIER Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, Vladimir Jurowski/Penta Tone PTC 5186597 If you are seeking the perfect Also Sprach Zarathustra in surround sound, it has to be said that your search will have to continue, even though this new disc is a very creditable entry. The sound picture has many of the attributes that we associate with PentaTone, although even the now-ageing Charles Mackerras reading in artificially produced surround sound has greater dynamic range and impact. Nevertheless, Jurowski is clearly a conductor who has the measure of this glorious score and (for the most part) ensures that the various sections of Strauss’s masterpiece cohere. The Mahler filler is a curious choice, particularly for those who would rather hear the composer’s Second Symphony, his final thoughts on the music here. Nevertheless a disc of impressive music making. Vladimir Jurowski and the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin have set down these new recordings of Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra and Mahler’s Totenfeier for PENTATONE to coincide with the Russian maestro taking up office as Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of the orchestra. Strauss’s bold and passionate tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra is a riveting work, famous for its startlingly atmospheric opening.

HOLST: ORCHESTRAL WORKS, Soloists / City of London Sinfonia / Richard Hickox/Chandos CHAN 10948 X  A memory of the contribution that the much-missed conductor Richard Hickox made to the Chandos label — and to the cause of British music. This 1994 recording is one of the first Holst collections made by Hickox and the City of London Sinfonia, an orchestra which he conducted for thirty-seven years, until his death. It brought several neglected works (including the St Paul’s and Brook Green suites, as well as the Concerto for Two Violins) to greater international recognition.

WALLFISCH: ANNABELLE: CREATION, Silva Screen SI LCD 1551  The Silva Screen label has long been the home of impressive new recordings of film soundtracks, with a dedication to the art which is much to be commended. This new recording of a Benjamin Wallfisch score reveals its secrets slowly rather than in a rush, and the tempo (and emotional temperature) is for the most part subdued. Nevertheless, for the patient listener, this is music of colour and invention.

 

The Classical CD Choice Interview: Jonathan Cooper at Chandos

At Chandos Records, there are three parts to the work of the talented JONATHAN COOPER: Record Producer, Sound Engineer and Audio Editor. He will be celebrating 25 years of continuous service next August (2018) having returned in 1993, but he did do a year there prior to that as the 3rd “sandwich” year of his degree, which he spent working out in the industry before returning to University to do his Final year.
We fired several short questions at him about the many superb discs he has been involved with at Chandos.
What are the peculiar challenges of your job?
One of the challenges of producing is working with different artists who are all very different personalities; some don’t need much input, others want lots of guidance, some need cajoling and encouraging, other need pushing a little to get the best out of them. When working with someone for the first time, it can be difficult to gauge what feedback to give to help them give their best performance.
Are there things you find particularly pleasurable and others which are onerous?
One of the most pleasurable things is being able to witness an artist develop over the course of a long-term relationship with Chandos. I’ve been very lucky to watch Edward Gardner’s approach to recording with an orchestra change gradually over the last ten years or so, and watch his assuredness and self-confidence grow.
You’ve been with Chandos Records for 25 years, Jonathan – what are the most significant changes you’ve seen in the classical recording industry in that time?
The most significant changes have been the computerisation of the editing process, and more recently the move to online distribution of recordings. I’m perhaps fortunate to be too young to have ever had to edit with analogue tape and razor blades, when I first started at Chandos we were using the Sony PCM-1630 system which recorded onto digital tape, on larger versions of video cassettes like VHS. Editing using this system was very slow and there were quite serious restrictions as to what edits could be attempted. Our first computer editing system arrived in 1996 and it has all developed from there – now we can edit just about anywhere in a phrase, and we have tools to remove noises without affecting the music. With the increase in the use of the internet and growth of access to broadband, the move to online distribution was a natural one – but do records exist anymore?
All this computerisation leads also to the onerous task – but very very necessary – of making sure that all the data we now generate is properly backed up and archived somewhere; but this task is the same for anyone using computers!
Have you encountered recording artists over the years who take a great interest in what you do – or others who take your work for granted?
In my experience all artists take some interest in how the sound they are making is coming across through the microphones — it is unusual not to have to make some adjustments after the first balance test. Some artists do come to record with a very specific sound-picture in their mind, and it can be challenging to realise their vision.
Chandos Records is famous for its superlative sound and its commitment to the SACD surround sound medium.  What are the principal differences between recording in surround sound and in stereo?
For Chandos, there isn’t too much difference when we record; we have a trusted technique which we’ve developed over the years which lets us do both at once on a session. It is amazing when making the surround version how much difference to the listening experience the rear and centre channels make; when you listen to them on their own it sounds like not much is going on, but mix them in and it really lifts the sense of space and bass response.
Of the discs you’ve worked on over the years, which do you remember most fondly?
I’ll always remember my first project as producer back in 2006 very fondly – the Korngold string quartets with the Doric String Quartet. It was their first disc for Chandos so we all had reason to be very nervous. They are incredible musicians and have the most amazing work ethic and it’s absolutely wonderful music, even more astonishing when you consider Korngold was in his twenties when he wrote the first quartet.
Another favourite disc is Louis Lortie’s first Faure recital. We recorded it at Snape Maltings concert hall which is one of my favourite venues, and Louis was on superb form. The Prelude from the suite from pelleas and melisande is over 5 minutes long, and it was just a single take – there was no need to do anything again, it was so beautifully moving.
What’s your next disc project?
This week I’ll be starting work on Edward Gardner’s next release with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, a disc of Grieg’s incidental music to Peer Gynt, coupled with the Piano Concerto with Jean-Efflam Bavouzet. The disc will be released in January 2018.