Graham Williams Reviews

Surround Sound Finessing for Wagner and Aho

AHO: SYMPHONY NO. 15, etc., Lahti Symphony Orchestra, Osmo Vänskä/BIS SACD 1866  Kalevi Aho is one of the most exciting and prolific composers of our time. He possesses a fertile musical imagination and has a total command of writing for the orchestra as the three works on this superbly recorded SACD demonstrate. ‘Minea’ (Concertante Music for Orchestra) was commissioned by Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra in 2005 and premièred in 2009. The work (whose name is a truncated version of Minneapolis) was conceived as a virtuoso piece that would illustrate the qualities of all the players in that orchestra. Listening to it on this recording played by the Lahti Symphony Orchestra one is left in no doubt that Aho’s aims have been achieved. Continue reading

Sonic Splendour from PentaTone, LSO Live and Chandos

WAGNER: GÖTTERDÄMMERUNG  Soloists, Berlin Radio Choir, Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, Marek Janowski PentaTone SACD PTC5186409  This issue of Richard Wagner’s ‘Götterdämmerung’ marks not only the completion of PentaTone’s Ring cycle, but also of their project to record and issue on SACD the ten mature Wagner operas by the end of 2013, the Wagner bicentenary year – a remarkable achievement by any standards, and a most successful one. This live recording of the concert performance given at the Philharmonie in Berlin took place on March 15, 2013. The cast assembled for this concert is comprised almost entirely of singers Janowski has used in his earlier PentaTone Wagner recordings – the exception being the leading male role of Siegfried. Siegfried is sung by the Canadian Heldentenor Lance Ryan. Continue reading

Cataclysmic Nielsen, Poetic Ravel

Nielsen Oramo

 NIELSEN: SYMPHONIES 4 & 5, Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, Sakari Oramo/BIS SACD 2028 (Classical CD Choice CD of the Month) The test (as much as anything else) of any performance of Nielsen’s dramatic Fifth Symphony is whether or not the side drum is encouraged to obey the composer’s instruction to ‘halt the progress of the orchestra’ – precisely what happens on the superb new recording by Sakari Oramo, the first since the legendary Jascha Horenstein version on Unicorn to really take the composer at his word. The disc (in superb surround sound) also boasts a splendid version of Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony.



ROZSA FILM MUSIC, BBC Philharmonic, Rumon Gamba, CHAN10806  Is there a modern classical label which has done more to celebrate the great orchestral film scores than Chandos? Once again, the BBC Philharmonic under Rumon Gamba do outstanding work in the latest disc devoted to the work of Miklós Rósza. Rósza channelled the genius of his native Hungary and that of his countrymen Bartok and Kodaly for the remarkable film scores here, and although all have previously enjoyed impressive readings, Gamba once again provides the most passionate advocacy for this music, suggesting it might be considered alongside more ‘respectable’ concert fare (though the Ben Hur extracts don’t match the composer’s own reading for sheer panache). And if the truth be told, a great deal of the music here stands more chance of immortality that many a trendy commission which may receive one or two performances but then vanishes without trace.


WILLIAMSON COMPLETE PIANO CONCERTOS, Howard Shelley, Piers Lane, Tasmanian S.O., Hyperion CDA 68011/2  A choice item from Hyperion’s Anglo-Australian artistic collaboration: music by an Australian composer who was once Master of the Queen’s Music (and sometimes criticised for insufficient graft in the role) That, however, is now ancient history, and this double-album set of Malcolm Williamson’s complete Piano Concertos is colourful and energetic. It contains the world premiere performance of Concerto No 4, as well as much attractive music.


STRAVINSKY: OEDIPUS REX, APOLLON MUSAGETE, Soloists, Monteverdi Choir, London Symphony Orchestra, John Eliot Gardiner/LSO LIVE SACD LSO0751  An intriguing SACD debut for two later works by Stravinsky. Apollo (as it is sometimes called) in particular is given a truly incisive and sinewy performance that secures and locates all the austere beauty of the work. Whether or not you respond to Oedipus Rex depends on your own tolerance for the hectoring narrative, here passionately spoken by the French actress Fanny Ardant. Personally, whoever the narrator is, this element has always precluded for me any enjoyment of the work — and I’d love to hear the music shorn of the narration. But that’s not likely to happen, so suspect I’ll be playing this disc for the exceptional performance of the purely orchestral piece.


MIRACULOUS METAMORPHOSES: HINDEMITH, PROKOFIEV, BARTOK, Kansas City Symphony, Michael Stern Reference RR-132  It is clear that the programming and creative team behind the splendid label Reference Recordings (notably the legendary engineer Prof. Johnson) have a particular predilection for colourful and vivid orchestral music principally from first half of the 20th century, as evinced by this latest recording collecting three of the most dynamic and inventive scores of the era. Michael Stern and the Kansas City Symphony are on something of a roll in terms of recordings for the label, as this latest collection matches (in sheer energy and authority) earlier recordings, but the Bartok suite in particular is given a reading that points up all the barbarity and violence of the score – and few recordings match this one in terms of integrating the organ passages with the turbulent orchestral texture (though Antal Dorati’s famous Decca recording remains the gold standard here). Reference have issued a two-channel CD of these scores which sounds as weightily impressive as one might wish, but SACD enthusiasts will be particularly impatient for the version in that medium which is to follow.


SALMANOV SYMPHONIES, Various Orchestras, Yevgeny Mvransiky MELODIYA MELCD 1002119  Those who have heard today of the neglected Russian composer Salmanov (and they are a modest number) perhaps have an image of a party apparatchik (in the vein of Krennikov) who toed the Communist line and curried establishment favour while far greater composers such as Shostakovich fared less well under crass party disapproval. What’s more, there is the feeling that Salmanov’s own music owes its more interesting passages to borrowings from Shostakovich. Neither perceptions is the whole truth; leaving aside Salmanov’s relation to the party, his music – while undoubtedly influenced by the greatest modern Russian symphonist, Shostakovich, has a character and identity of its own and is not simply tub-thumping rhetoric; there is a pronounced melancholy strain in his music alongside the more exciting passages (and there are plenty of those) which speak of an individual voice. Yevgeny Mavrinsky, perhaps the composer’s most ardent proselytiser, here gives the four symphonies as committed readings as they are likely to enjoy, but there is a caveat that may rule out the set for all but the most adventurous: the first three symphonies are given in elderly mono recordings, whose tubby, congested sound does little justice to the extremely colourful writing of the composer, further compromised by asthmatic-sounding audiences (the fourth, however, is a stereo recording from 1977). But beggars can’t be choosers, and those interested in modern Soviet music should most definitely take an interest in this unusual set.


RAVEL: ORCHESTRAL WORKS Bielefelder Philharmoniker Alexander Kalajdzic MDG 9011820 | 07606231820631 SACD  An interesting disc, despite a certain opacity in the recording. Ravel orchestrated several of his piano compositions for full orchestra, but never got around to the chillingly evocative Gaspard de la nuit. It was the composer Marius Constant who did service here, and under the conductor Alexander Kalajdzic the Bielefeld Philharmonic reveals previously unexplored and undiscovered dimensions of this masterpiece of French piano music. Other works on the disc are Menuet antique, Valses nobles et sentimentales and Pavane pour une infante défunte.


MADETOJA SYMPHONIES NOS. 1-3; OKON FUOKO SUITE, OP. 58 Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, John Storgårds  Ondine Ode 1211-2 This latest disc is the second in Ondine’s Madetoja’s symphonies. Admirers of this contemporary of Sibelius and aficionados of Finnish orchestral music should pay heed. Madetoja synthesises the landscape and folk songs of his native province of Ostrobothnia with a French elegance (Symphony No. 3) to create a unique voice.


ANDREAE: SYMPHONY, SONGS, CONCERTINO, GMCD 7400  This is the latest volume in Guild’s intriguing series of recordings of the music of the Swiss composer and conductor Volkmar Andreae (1879-1962), and the third of his orchestral music. The discs in the series are all conducted by the composer’s grandson Marc Andreae, granting the performances a certain authority. These are all new recordings, set down in England with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. As in previous issues, there is much impressive music here alongside some more quotidian writing.


SCHARWENKA: PIANO CONCERTOS, Alexander Markovich, Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, Neeme Järvi/CHANDOS CHAN 10814(2) Largely forgotten today, the Polish-born German composer Franz Xaver Scharwenka was a much lauded figure of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century music. His four piano concertos are central works among his small output. With Neeme Järvi and the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, Alexander Markovich has here recorded them together for the first time. There is an air of the faded here, but the best possible case is made for the music


PUCCINI Turandot Lise Lindstrom, Marco Berti, Eri Nakamura, Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Henrik Nánási/OPUS ARTE OA 11320 Recorded live at the Royal Opera House, September 2014, Andrei Serban’s spectacular and thrilling 1984 production of Puccini’s final and grandest opera has long been a classic at the Royal Opera House. First filmed for BBC TV in the 80s, this new recording – of its fifteenth revival – is in stunning HD and makes this famous production available for the first time on DVD and Blu-ray.


SHORTER NOTICES   The exuberantly colourful orchestral writing of TCHAIKOVSKY is tailor-made for the extra dimension surround sound recordings grant, as two new discs demonstrate. Dmitrij Kitajenko’s recording (Oehms OC672) of the hybrid that is the composer’s posthumous Seventh Symphony makes the best possible case for the work. The days when this symphony is considered an ugly duckling in the composer’s output are numbered. Pentatone weighs in with a new recording of the composer’s Manfred Symphony from the Russian National Orchestra under Mikhail Pletnev (PTC 5186 387). The piece has had a fitful history on disc with some recordings wringing out every ounce of intensity and drama while others have been compromised by a weedy-sounding organ at the symphony’s all-important climax. No such problems with Pletnev’s disc which showcases the organ section in the widest ranging sound, although with a languid tempo. Excellent though the performance is, there is a caveat: Pletnev now rivals the late Colin Davis in adding loud vocal obbligato to his performances. Strikingly powerful is a new MAHLER 5 from Ivan Fischer on Channel Classics (CCS SA 34213). And the programme on SIBELIUS’ Violin Concerto (Chandos CHSA 5134) makes one wonder if this particular SACD was designed as a kind of ‘Sibelius sampler’, leaving aside its virtues in terms of recording and performance. We are given sympathetic recordings of two of the composer’s signature works, the Karelia Suite and Finlandia, as well as a sensitive reading of the concerto (although Henning Kraggerud’s Naxos SACD teases out more poetry). STRADIVARIUS IN RIO is an atmospheric collection of Latin pieces by such composers as Antonio Carlos Jobim, sympathetically played by Victoria Mullova (Onyx 4130), while Linn provides an intriguing SACD: a reconstruction the first performance of MOZART’s Requiem sensitively played by the Dunedin Consort conducted by John Butt (Linn CKD 449).






Delius, Prokofiev and a Month of Rarities from Naxos and Helios


CLASSICAL CD CHOICE CD OF THE MONTH   PROKOFIEV: PIANO CONCERTO NO. 3, SYMPHONY NO. 5 Mariinsky Orchestra, Dennis Matsuev, Valery Gergiev/Mariinsky SACD MAR0549  It’s hardly surprising that the performance of the concerto on this Mariinsky SACD has such flair and panache – this is, after all, core repertoire for Gergiev and his orchestra, but it comes up against some formidable opposition in both this piece and the symphony in the SACD format, and Prokofiev aficionados will inevitably be wondering how it compares with its rivals. Freddy Kempff on BIS has set down a truly impressive Prokofiev third piano concerto, and two things immediately strike the listener when hearing this latest performance by the equally talented Dennis Matsuev; firstly, that this recording has more refinement of detail and other more subtle aspects of the sound picture, while the Mariinsky engineers go for a much more forceful and concentrated sound canvas. These values are reflected in the performances; Kempff is more nuanced, but Matsuev generates more kinetic excitement, particularly in the exhilarating coda to the third movement, played with breathtaking verve. It’s a very difficult call to choose between the two; on balance, perhaps, the full-bloodedness of Matsuev/Gergiev seems to me to capture more of the authentic Prokofiev spirit. As for the symphony, the PentaTone performance by Jurowksi remains a more translucent recording in terms of dynamic range, but Gergiev is slightly more energetic.


SIERRA: SINFONÍA NO. 4,• FANDANGOS, Carnaval Nashville Symphony, Giancarlo Guerrero/Naxos 8.559738  A vivid snapshot of the music of the Puerto Rican composer Roberto Sierra, which is rapidly acquiring a following with heavyweight commissions and performances for Sierra around the world. Fandangos was premiered at the BBC Proms in London and utilises a harpsichord piece attributed to Antonio Soler as the basis of an orchestral fantasy. The striking Sinfonía No. 4 channels the Germanic symphonic style, adding Spanish infusions.


DELIUS IN NORWAY: EVENTYR, NORWEGIAN SUITE, ETC., Ann Helen Moen (soprano), Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Andrew Davis/Chandos SACD CHSA 5131  Sir Andrew Davis and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra find an apposite musical expression for the relationship of Delius with his spiritual home, Norway. In splendid SACD sound, we are given music inspired by the Norwegian landscape and culture, often showing the influence of Delius’s friend and mentor Edvard Grieg. Delius first performed Sleigh Ride on the piano to a close group of friends, including Grieg. Orchestrated later under the title Winter Night, it went on to become Delius’s most popular miniature. On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring is one of Delius’s sublime achievements, a perfect translation of nature and mood into music. Norwegian soprano Ann-Helen Moen joins the orchestral forces in Two Songs from the Norwegian.


DEBUSSY: LA CATHÉDRALE ENGLOUTIE, PRELUDES II, SUITE BERGAMASQUE: PIANO WORKS IN TRANSCRIPTIONS FOR  ORGAN, Carsten Wiebusch/ AUDITE SACD97699  Debussy’s piano works arranged for the organ? Surprisingly, it works: Carsten Wiebusch’s CD ‘La Cathédrale engloutie’ – piano works in transcriptions for organ – is highly impressive, utilising the instrument to find a persuasive equivalent for Debussy’s harmonic language. The second book of ‘Préludes’ and the ‘Suite bergamasque’, two standard works of piano repertoire, are superbly handled.


GOLDMARK: VIOLIN CONCERTO NO. 1 OP. 28 BRAHMS: VIOLIN CONCERTO OP.77, BACH: PARTITA BWV1004, Nathan Milstein, Philharmonia Orchestra, Harry Blech, Anatole Fistoulari/Praga Digitals SACD DSD350105  Vintage sound perhaps, but spruced up with SACD accoutrements, this coupling of ‘Hungarian’ Romantic concertos has its charms. Goldmark’s concerto was first given in Nuremberg, October 1878, and is influenced by Mendelssohn and Schumann. Milstein’s fourth of five studio recordings is the best regarded.


MYASKOVSKY/SVIRIDOV/TCHAIKOVSKY: PUSHKIN IN MUSIC, St. Petersburg Camerata/Intergroove IGC 82 0807297206227  Pushkin’s literary influence had a seismic effect on the burgeoning Russian romantic music scene, his writing inspiring many symphonic and operatic works. This unusual CD collects musical transcriptions of Pushkin’s works which are mostly unknown, though the two orchestral pieces from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin are popular. Myaskovsky’s 10th Symphony (based on Pushkin’s poem The Bronze Horseman) and Sviridov’s film score Snowstorm are given lively readings in reasonable sound.


WALLACE SYMPHONIC POEMS, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra of Wales, Martyn Brabbins/Helios CDH55461  The Passing of Beatrice, dating from 1892, was William Wallace’s first symphonic poem and is one of the first British works in the genre. Shaw described Wallace as ‘a young Scotch composer with a very tender and sympathetic talent’, though he had reservations. The Passing of Beatrice shows a Lisztian influence, notably the Dante Symphony. Wallace’s music is attractively romantic in idiom, and these ingratiating performances should have the effect of reawakeng interest in a forgotten talent.


WAGNER: THE RING: AN ORCHESTRAL ADVENTURE BIS SACD 2052  Henk de Vlieger’s ambitious potpourri of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle filters the dramas to create to a symphonic poem which follows the sequence of the operas up to the twilight of the gods is clearly delineated. The extracts (largely speaking) eschew alterations, though some  vocal lines are orchestrated. The piece now has two recordings; there is little to choose between this BIS SACD and the Chandos alternative, though the multi-channel descent into Nibelheim here is breathtaking.


DVORAK: STRING QUARTET OP. 80, MINIATURES B149, CYPRESSES B152, Zemlinsky Quartet/ Praga Digitals SACD DSD250303  An anthology of chamber music by the creator of the New World Symphony, which gathers lesser known pieces, mostly intimate, from a master of Czech chamber music. The Zemlinsky Quartet, do great service to the composer.


WEINBERG SYMPHONY NO. 2, THE GOLDEN KEY, ST. PETERSBURG STATE SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA, VLADIMIR LANDE/NAXOS 8573085  Weinberg’s symphonies are recognised today as a substantial continuation of the russian tradition. Weinberg’s Symphony no. 12 was written in response to the death in august 1975 of his great friend and supporter of 32 years, Shostakovich. With its subtle stylistic allusions to the composer, this is the longest and most wide-ranging of Weinberg’s purely orchestral symphonies. One of only two surviving ballet scores, the golden key is a compelling satire, extending a lineage which includes Prokofiev and Stravinsky. Vladimir Lande demonstrates a superb understanding of the works, leading the St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra in exemplary performances.


ZEMLINSKY: SYMPHONIES 1 & 2, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Martyn Brabbins/Hyperion CDA 67985  Given their approachability, the neglect of these two Zemlinksy symphonies is curious, but the persuasive perforarmces set down here by Matryn Brabbins may go some way to give these expressive scores some currency.


SAMUEL/JONGEN:SYMPHONY NO. 6, THREE SYMPHONIC MOVEMENTS, ROYAL FLEMISH PHILHARMONIC, MARTYN BRABBINS/ RFP 006/5425008373157  The Royal Flemish Philharmonic uncovers more distinctive, little-known music of character. The second Belgian Boutique CD collects music by two composers from the south of Belgium, one of which is the atmospheric Sixth Symphony by Adolphe Samuel, built around the story of the creation. But the real find here is Joseph Jongen’s final orchestral piece, the neo-impressionist Three Symphonic Movements. ‘it is all extraordinary music, very special and spectacular’, in Martyn Brabbins’ words – and this does not understate the case; a genuine find.

Scoring Borgen: Halfdan E talks to Barry Forshaw

 I met the talented composer Halfdan E at a meal at the Danish ambassador’s for the stars and creative team of such shows as Borgen and The Killing – and I discovered we had a connection. I’d written the introduction for the Norvik Press edition of Dan Turrell’s Murder in the Dark, and Halfdan had collaborated with the late writer on the CD ‘An Introduction.’ I asked the composer about his work on Borgen: ‘One of the things that tend to grow bigger by the hour when you start working on a score for a TV series, is the ambition for the title sequence and thus the music. Visuals need to be catching, music needs to be absolutely ear-catching. But not only that: in this case, the directors wanted it to reflect the ups and downs of life of the prime minister, but also the stress and cynicism of political life, the intrigue – but also the loneliness, the few warm moments, the bitternes and so on and so forth. A rollercoaster of an intro, in other words, all dispatched in music and in only 40 seconds. Not forgetting a catchy melody, a strong identity. Everything that left my desk was either too melancholy, too pathetic or too heroic, and I was about to despair when I accidentally overheard my neighbouring composer practise a very fast Bach piece, and that more or less was the key to the Borgen intro. Bach has a way of always exploring the consequences of just shifting one note in unexpected ways, which can totally change the direction of the piece, and that was what became the method: to change direction for every two bars or so, to get a constantly shifting emotional impact, ending in an open mood that sets the scene for whatever comes up in the episode. Continue reading