Graham Williams Reviews

Reich from LSO Live

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REICH: SEXTET; CLAPPING MUSIC; MUSIC FOR PIECES OF WOOD, LSO Percussion Ensemble, Neil Percy/LSO Live SACD LSO5073  This timely release of three works by one of the pioneers of minimalism Steve Reich appears a few months before the composer celebrates his 80th birthday on 3rd October 2016. The three performances recorded here were given by members of the London Symphony Orchestra Percussion Ensemble led by Neil Percy – a consummate virtuoso – who for almost 20 years has been the LSO’s Principal Percussionist. ‘Clapping Music’ composed in 1972 is exactly what it says on the tin. Reich conceived the piece from a desire to compose music “that would need no instrument beyond the human body”. Beginning with a single rhythmic cell of 12 beats modelled on traditional African bell rhythms it uses Reich’s familiar phasing technique to explore the basic rhythmic pattern with mesmerising effect. Neil Percy and his LSO Co-Principal Sam Walton, deliver a faultless account of what must surely be a most challenging piece for performers. A year later in 1973 Reich composed his ‘Music for Pieces of Wood’ in which five performers play five sets of wood blocks (claves) tuned A, B, C#, D# and the D# an octave above. Though, unlike ‘Clapping Music’, the element of pitch is present, it is the interplay of the complex rhythmic patterns that captivates the listener. Neil Percy and Sam Walton are joined by Simon Crawford-Phillips, David Jackson and Antoine Bedewi to yield a performance of amazing precision and control of dynamics. The final and longest piece on this SACD is the ‘Sextet’ of 1985 for which Philip Moore joins the ensemble. While the first two works represent Reich in what might be considered to be his purest style, the ‘Sextet’ brings a wider range of instrumental sonorities into play in what is a more ambitious and colourful composition. Continue reading

Superlative Tchaikovsky, Khachaturian from Chandos

TCHAIKOVSKY: PIANO CONCERTO NO. 2/KHACHATURIAN: PIANO CONCERTO, Xiayin Wang (piano), Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Peter Oundjian/CHANDOS SACD CHSA 5167  I was hugely impressed by the Chinese American pianist Xiayin Wang on her debut disc for the Chandos label of three piano concertos by American composers. Now having had a year’s break from her concert schedule to start a family she returns with a stunning SACD of two concertos that though composed by familiar names are not heard that often in the concert hall. This disc confirms her as a pianist who combines virtuosity with consummate sensitivity, qualities required in different degrees for the execution of both of these somewhat neglected concertos. The Tchaikovsky 2nd Piano Concerto is performed in its original version, free of the disfiguring cuts that are thankfully rarely made in performances these days, so the the grandeur and scale of this formidable work is fully retained. From the opening orchestral flourish it is clear that the contribution from Peter Oundjian and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra is going to be worthy of the dazzling pianism on offer, and so it proves. Whether in the tuttis or accompanying the soloist in quiet passages the cultivated playing, especially from the woodwind section, is a major factor in the success of Wang’s account of this monumental work. In the gorgeous slow movement, one of Tchaikovsky’s most imaginative creations, the delicacy of Wang’s playing is beautifully matched by that of Maya Iwabuchi (violin) and Aleksei Kiseliov (cello). Xiayin Wang revels in the high spirits of the finale with playing that abounds with charm and flair. The recording is rich and detailed in the usual Chandos style, but the piano is more naturally balanced and integrated with the orchestra than on Denis Matsuev’s equally fine, though differently coupled, version of this concerto on the Mariinsky label. The coupling here is the Piano Concerto of Aram Khachaturian, his sole venture in this genre, and this too is a winner. The only competition on SACD is from Nareh Arghamanyan on Pentatone, and enjoyable though that performance was, I would venture that this one is even more exciting simply because Xiayin Wang fully embraces the work’s brashness with more uninhibited playing. Arguably another advantage of this Chandos release is the use of a flexatone in the slow movement as specified in the score. On the Pentatone version a musical saw is used which, while effective, did not provide quite the eerie sound that the composer probably had in mind. Again the sound is first-rate and those seeking a coupling of these works need not hesitate.

Tempting New Discs from Dutton, Challenge, BIS & Co.

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SULLIVAN: INCIDENTAL MUSIC TO MACBETH & THE TEMPEST, etc., Mary Bevan, FFlur Wyn, sopranos, Simon Callow, speaker, BBC Singers, BBC Concert Orchestra, John Andrews/Dutton Epoch SACD 2CDLXX7331  The highly enterprising Dutton label has long been putting lovers of English music into its debt with a series of acclaimed recordings of neglected music both by little-known composers and giants of the field (the company’s recent disc of Vaughan Williams’ Fat Knight – a piece realised by the conductor Martyn Yates — was an absolute delight, and provided listeners with what was virtually a new piece by VW). This latest disc of incidental music by Arthur Sullivan serves the function of reminding listeners (if it were necessary) that there is far more to Sullivan the witty delights of the Savoy operas. We have heard some of this music before, but never in this impeccably rendered form. The composer’s level of invention here is non-pareil, even if this incidental music to Shakespeare is unlikely to be heard in any contemporary performances of The Bard. The vocal contributions by the sopranos Mary Bevan and FFlur Wyn are subtle and winning, but the real added value of the disc is provided by Simon Callow. His assumption of a speaking role is a reminder of the fact that actor has one of the most aesthetic speaking voices in the UK, and even those who balk at oration on classical discs will find themselves won over. With every new issue of this ilk, one wonders how long Dutton can continue its welcome exhumation process — we can only hope: indefinitely. And there is a final persuasive reason for purchasing this disc. The SACD recording is quite admirable in its fidelity to the sound canvas, with every detail of the piquant orchestration rendered with total fidelity.

OVERTURES BY GLUCK, MOZART, BEETHOVEN, CHERUBINI, WEBER AND MENDELSSOHN, Bamberg Symphoniker, Karl-Heiz Steffens/Tudor 7195 SACD  How commercial is this collection? Most dedicated classical music enthusiasts will have at least a few of these pieces – even in the SACD medium – but this is a particularly useful disc in collecting a programme that makes for very satisfying unified experience. From the Gluck overture to Iphigenie in Aulis (which opens the programme) to Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream overture, which brings it to a close, the level of musicianship is impeccable – and it goes without saying that (as with every surround sound disc from Tudor), the recording blossoms in a persuasive simulacra of a concert hall ambience.

CHALLENGE CLASSICS SACDS: RICHARD STRAUSS: ARABELLA/Albrecht (CC 72686); BRAHMS: SERENADE NO.1, HAYDN VARIATIONS/De Vriend (CC 72692); BEETHOVEN: PIANO CONCERTOS 1 & 2/Minaar, de Vriend (CC72712); PROKOFIEV: SYMPHONIES 6 & 7/Gaffigan (CC 7214)  The Challenge Classics label has long been a supporter of the surround sound medium, issuing a series of discs which married recordings of great warmth and finesse to performances that merited such impeccable rendering. And it might be argued that the label is currently experiencing something of a Golden Age, as the admirably high quality of the discs listed above suggest. Strauss’s Arabella is given a reading of affection and lyricism that is perfectly suited to this late flowering of the composer’s genius. Jacquelyn Wagner is both mellifluous and moving in the title role. There are perhaps two caveats: the live recording picks up quite a bit of stage noise and (in the final analysis) this is not quite a reading to challenge such classic recordings of the past as that featuring Lisa Della Casa. But as the first performance of the opera in the SACD medium, it is undoubtedly a worthy contender, and the packaging (with a libretto folded into a booklet format with the disc) is the perfect solution to this problem. James Gaffigan’s reading of two of Prokofiev’s later symphonies has an attention to detail that is combined with performances, of great panache. It’s an issue which will appeal to any committed Prokofievian, and it’s interesting to note that the composer’s symphonies, once relatively sparse in their representation on disc, are becoming more and more common, even in the surround sound medium. The two Beethoven and Brahms discs conducted by Jan Willem de Vriend both show meticulous attention to the scores and a welcome refusal to add any conductorly flourishes to enhance the music; de Vriend allows the composers to be their own advocates without any gildingof the lily. The results are impressive. It’s interesting to note that the disc (which couples the first Orchestral Serenade with the Variations on a Theme by Haydn) is another entry on SACD of the former piece, while the Second Serenade has yet to make an appearance (Robin Ticciati’s admirable reading of the First Serenade similarly eschews the second. Isn’t it about time for a matching reading of the second Sereande, either from De Vriend or Ticciati?) But – back to the business at hand. One can only hope that the Challenge Classics label continues to share this commitment to surround sound – performances as good as those on these discs demand the best possible sound resolution.

DEBUSSY & TAKEMITSU FOR STRINGS, Scottish Ensemble Linn CKD 512  I don’t know about you (there are those who are distinctly sniffy about such things), but I am always on the lookout for new orchestrations of pieces written for other combinations, usually written originally for a small number of strings. Much depends, of course, on the skill of the orchestrator. The pieces arranged by Jonathan Morton (who conducts the Scottish ensemble) are done with such musicality and sensitivity here that only the most unbending of listeners will be able to resist their charm. The Debussy String Quartet in G minor may have more rigour and intensity in its original setting, but the sheer bloom of the new clothing it is given here by Morton provides a fresh dimension. I’m not greatly taken with the Takemitsu pieces, but there will be those who are more on the composer’s wavelength. The Debussy items alone, however, are worth the price of admission. The Scottish Ensemble’s reputation for excellent string arrangements (established with important commissions from the late Rudolph Barshai) continues here. The variety of string techniques and the wide palette of instrumental colours Debussy employed are all enhanced by the larger string ensemble, particularly in the sumptuously beautiful slow movement. In addition, the attractively lyrical Girl with the Flaxen Hair has been orchestrated for string ensemble and two harps by Colin Matthews.

SCRIABIN: SYMPHONIES 1 & 2, Soloists, London Symphony Orchestra, Valery Gergiev/ LSO live 0770 SACD  Not everyone will warm to these performances of lesser-known Scriabin symphonies (and the first has a more persuasive reading on the PentaTone label), but there is no denying Valery Gergiev’s commitment to the music, and if you have the matching coupling of Scriabin symphonies 3 and 4, you need not hesitate.

RESPIGHI: SINFONIA DRAMMATICA; BELFAGOR, OUVERTURE PER ORCHESTRA, Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège, John Neschling/ BIS 2210 SACD  To some degree, Respighi’s imposing Sinfonia Drammatica has been a poor relation among the composer’s major works, no doubt because it does not quite possess the typically Respighian sound, with that striking alternation of raw power and rich orchestration which is the hallmark of the composer’s work; this is a piece which is more in the Straussian idiom. But with a little work on the listener’s part, it can be immensely rewarding in the right hands. The latter condition is very much the case here with John Neschling once again demonstrating his sympathy for this composer. After recording the Roman trilogy with the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, Neschling has continued to explore Ottorino Respighi’s lavish orchestral scores with the Belgian Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège. On the team’s third disc the turn has come for Respighi’s Sinfonia drammatica – a score of epic proportions (over 58 minutes in the present performance) for a correspondingly large-scale orchestra. Both these factors may explain in part why it is rarely performed and recorded, but the work also has a dark-hued, intense character which will surprise those only familiar with Respighi’s more extrovert scores. Closing the disc is the better-known Belfagor Overture, a work from 1924 in which Respighi rescued material from an opera.

BUTTERWORTH ORCHESTRAL & VOCAL WORKS (arr. Russman), Soloists, Kriss Russman/BIS 2195 SACD  Don’t be put off by the rather old-fashioned sleeve illustration with which BIS have adorned this unusual release with (something Arcadian would have been far more apropos); this is a very pleasing one-disc compilation of the important pieces by the composer with the added virtue of some orchestrated songs which sound splendid in their richer guise. When George Butterworth left England to fight in the First World War, he had already begun to compose the ‘Orchestral Fantasia’. It is unknown whether he ever finished the work and, due to the composer never returning home, any complete score was lost. Composer and conductor Kriss Russman has taken up where the manuscript breaks off, developing Butterworth’s ideas and completing the work. Butterworth’s ‘Orchestral Works’ on the BIS label also feature world première recordings of newly-orchestrated versions of celebrated works, such as Songs from A Shropshire Lad and Suite for String Quartette

DOHNÁNYI: ORCHESTRAL WORKS: Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 5* / Symphony No. 1, Op. 9 / Suite from The Veil of Pierrette, Op. 18 / Suite, Op. 19 / Variations on a Nursery Theme, Op. 25*/ Ruralia hungarica, Op. 32b / Symphonic Minutes, Op. 36 / Symphony No. 2, Op. 40. Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 42*/ Violin Concerto No. 2, Op. 43†/ Harp Concertino, Op. 45‡ / American Rhapsody, Op. 47, James Ehnes (violin)† / Howard Shelley (piano)* / Clifford Lantaff (harp)‡. BBC Philharmonic / Matthias Bamert CHAN 10906(5)  Classical music enthusiasts are known to take the occasional composer for granted, and do not stray beyond the one or two popular works by musicians less celebrated than the Rachmaninovs of this world. And it is a mistake, in the case of composers such as Ernst von Dohnányi, principally known for his Nursery Variations. This compact and comprehensive box set shows there is much more to him than what people think they know. Chandos’ series of recordings of his orchestral works, performed by the BBC Philharmonic under Matthias Bamert, with an impressive roster of soloists, significantly increased his public profile, and is now regarded as benchmarks for the repertoire.

LEHÀR: GIUDITTA, CHRISTIANE LIBOR, LAURA SCHERWITZL, NIKOLAI SCHUKOFF, RALF SIMON, CHOR des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Münchner Rundfunkorchester, Ulf Schirmer CPO777 749-2  A certain snobbishness has worked against the reputation of Franz Lehàr, but despite the unchallenging nature of his operetta libretti, his music is full of charm and melody (and it will come as no surprise to listeners that the Broadway composer Richard Rogers was a great admirer — both men are melodists to their fingertips. Lehar’s best work is in his operettas The Merry Widow and Land of Smiles, but many would make a case for Giuditta. Lehàr’s operetta is ably performed by Christiane Libor, Laura Scherwitzl, Nikolai Schukoff, Ralf Simon, the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks and the Münchner Rundfunkorchester under the baton Ulf Schirmer. A wealth of beautiful melodies preside, above all Octavio’s aria ‘Freunde, das Leben ist lebenswert’ and the title heroine’s aria ‘Meine Lippen, sie küssen so heiß.

KHACHATURIAN, RAUTAVAARA FLUTE CONCERTOS, Sharon Bezaly, flute, Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra, Enrique Diemacke/BIS-1849 SACD  When the flautist Jean-Pierre Rampal asked the composer Khachaturian for a new concerto, the latter suggested that he simply transcribe the composer’s violin concerto. And as an exercise in transcription, the piece is a delight, adding another concerto to the limited repertoire of the instrument. For this writer, the piece is far preferable in its original violin incarnation, but admirers of the flute will be pleased, particularly given that the accompanying piece, a concerto by Rautavaara is a relatively beguiling modern work. Both works are played with great technique by Sharon Bezaly.

SCUMANN: COMPLTE SYMPHONIC WORKS VOL. V1, WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln, Heiz Holliger/Audite 97705  This has been a truly exemplary series from Audite, enshrining Schumann’s oeuvre in performances of great authority. The ace in the hole is here is the little-known ‘Zwickau’ Symphony. The listener might almost – almost! — be convinced by this performance that it belongs in the Schumann canon.

SAINT-SAËNS: SYMPHONY NO.3, ‘ORGAN’, ETC., Kansas City Symphony, Michael Stern/Reference Recordings RR-135 SACD  Prepare for a striking experience. Many recordings of Saint-Saens’s Third Symphony have done considerable justice to the diaphragm-shaking organ chords in the final movement, but few have had the sheer impact of this recording by Michael Stern and the Kansas City Symphony (previously reviewed on Classical CD Choice by Graham Williams), one of the Reference Recordings discs originally issued as a CD, but now repurposed in glorious SACD sound (the company’s back catalogue, in fact, is crammed with stereo-only discs that one would love to see given this surround sound sprucing up). Stern and his Kansas City forces find the poetry in Saint-Saëns’ magnificent score as well as its majesty, and deliver a particularly limpid Poco Adagio, finessing all the delicate orchestration that is to be found in the movement. The generous fill-ups are the Introduction and Rondo Capriccio and the little heard La Muse et la Poète. Perhaps a warning note should be sounded: this is a disc with such a wide dynamic range that it will sound better in larger living rooms than more compact ones; as the acoustic is at times notably resonant, the bass response is more suited to top-of-the range-equipment in a room that gives the sound picture the space it demands. If your equipment (and living room) is up to this job, you are in for a remarkable listen.

From Czech Symphonies to American Opera: Graham Williams reviews

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DVORAK: SYMPHONIES 7 & 8, Houston Symphony, Andrés Orozco-Estrada/PENTATONE SACD PTC 5186 578  It is understandable that PENTATONE would wish to mark the signing of their new star maestro Andrés Orozco-Estrada with a release to showcase his considerable musical and interpretive talents, so a coupling of two of Dvorak’s most popular symphonies would therefore seem to be a good choice for this purpose. There is, however, the problem of the existing competition to consider. Currently on SACD alone there are no less than 12 versions of the Symphony No.7 in D minor and an astonishing 21 versions of the Symphony No.8 in G major, not to mention the many recommendable recordings on CD, while the current PENTATONE catalogue already boasts fine accounts of these two symphonies by the late Yakov Kreizberg and the Netherlands PO. Having both symphonies on a single disc lasting 76’34” is certainly a plus point, but it is clear that any newcomer to an over-crowded catalogue needs to offer some illuminating point of view to warrant the attention of collectors. As is the case with all great masterpieces these works invite differing interpretative stances from conductors. In both these symphonies Orozco-Estrada adopts a musical approach that is refreshingly straightforward and direct in manner with generally steady speeds – though he never lets the music drag or become ponderous – and with a warm expressiveness that allows Dvorak’s music to speak for its self. Orozco-Estrada’s middle-of-the-road accounts, that while never matching the urgency or electric intensity of say Manfred Honeck in his recent recording of the 8th Symphony, are unencumbered by mannerisms that can become irritating on repeated listening. Whether this is enough to trump the competition is for each listener to judge for themselves. The Houston Symphony respond to their newly appointed Music director with unfailingly polished playing. Orchestral textures are satisfyingly rich with solid weighty brass, supple woodwind and keen strings all vividly captured in the splendidly rich 5.0 DSD recordings made by the capable team of Mark Donahue, John Newton and Dirk Sobotka. The two symphonies on this SACD were recorded live a year apart (April 2014 for Symphony No. 7 and March 2015 for No. 8) at the Jesse H Jones Hall for the Performing Arts, Houston, Texas. These scrupulously prepared and finally executed accounts of two of Dvorak’s finest symphonies can be confidently recommended to those seeking this particular coupling even in what is clearly a very competitive field.

LUTOSŁAWSKI: CONCERTO FOR ORCHESTRA, BRAHMS G MINOR PIANO QUINTET (ORCH. SCHOENBERG), Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, Miguel Harth-Bedoya/ Harmonia Mundi SACD HMU 807668  The Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra and its Peruvian conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya made a most favourable impression accompanying Vadym Kholodenko in his recent recording of Prokofiev’s 2nd and 5th Piano Concertos and on this new recording they show their mettle in accounts of Lutosławski’s brilliant Concerto for Orchestra and Schoenberg’s orchestration of the Brahms G minor Piano Quintet. Though this is an unusual pair of works to be coupled together on disc the quality of both the performances and the recorded sound on this SACD make it worth serious consideration by collectors seeking a recording of either one or both of these pieces. The Lutosławski work has already received three recordings on SACD, but from the opening bars one is gripped here by the fiery and incisive playing of the FWSO and the steady forward momentum that Harth-Bedoya engenders in the ‘Allegro maestoso’ of the opening ‘Intrada’. The movement’s climax around 4.04 is delivered with tremendous punch, and for once the presence of the ominously ticking celesta that leads to the movement’s quiet conclusion is not subsumed by the rest of the orchestra. In the tricky ‘Capriccio notturno ed Arioso’ the players nimbly articulate the scurrying string passages with notable precision, and in each of the three sections of the finale – ‘Passacaglia, Toccata e Corale’ – demonstrate their virtuosity guided by Harth-Bedoya’s firm and clear sighted direction. The performance of the Brahms/ Schoenberg is equally impressive with generally well chosen tempi; though for the third movement (marked ‘Andante con moto’) a timing of 11.35 may, for some, be a fraction too expansive. But such is the eloquence of the playing it seemed just perfect, and thanks to the up-front recorded sound there is a lovely combination of Brahmsian warmth and clarity of detail throughout. Needless to say Harth-Bedoya and his players really let their hair down in the final ‘Rondo alla zingarese’. Brad Michel’s DSD recording, though closely balanced, has exceptional clarity with plenty of air around the instruments and terrific impact from the percussion section in both works. I did, however, notice the presence of a low frequency hum in the Brahms/Schoenberg work. This was only audible in silences and at the end of movements and did not unduly affect my enjoyment of the performance.In all respects this unusual but satisfying programme deserves a warm recommendation.

SCHUMANN: PIANO CONCERTO/MENDELSSOHN: PIANO CONCERTO NO. 1; MÄRCHEN VON DER SCHÖNEN MELUSINE, OP. 32 (THE FAIR MELUSINA) (1835 VERSION), Ingrid Fliter (piano), Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Antonio Méndez/Linn CKD 555 SACD  Ingrid Fliter’s previous two releases for the Linn label showed her to be a pianist of considerable elegance and refinement. Both featured the works of Chopin, a composer central to her repertoire, but here she performs piano concertos written by two German composers who were contemporaries, friends and colleagues – Schumann and Mendelssohn. Fliter is partnered in both works by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra directed by the young Spanish conductor Antonio Méndez. There are countless recordings on disc of the Schumann Piano Concerto in widely differing interpretive styles to suit all tastes, so how to characterise Ingrid Fliter’s performance of this enduring masterpiece? The brisk delivery of the descending passage in chords at the opening of the ‘Allegro affetuoso’ indicates that this is to be a performance of eagerness and considerable energy and so it proves. In all three movements the pianist seems reluctant to linger (even in the cadenza) and assiduously avoids any risk of over romanticising the music. The benefits of having an orchestra of 37 players are immediately apparent in the clarity of Schumann’s wind writing, while the use of natural trumpets and horns add spice to the orchestral accompaniment.
Even better is the sparkling account of Mendelssohn’s youthful 1st Piano Concerto that elicits a performance of dazzling pianism from Fliter. The zest of her playing in the outer movements almost leaves the listener breathless yet she brings a corresponding calmness to the lovely central ‘Andante’ where the scoring of the main theme for bassoons, horns and low strings sounds especially gorgeous on this recording.Placed between the two concerto performances on this disc is a vivid performance of Mendelssohn’s Overture ‘The Fair Melusina’. This was composed in 1834, but in spite of being a favourite with the composer it remains one of the least familiar of his overtures. The story of a water sprite under a curse and her marriage to a mortal knight has obvious parallels with Dvorak’s opera Rusalka. Mendelssohn, however, does not attempt to depict the events of the story, but rather its oceanic aura. Méndez directs a pellucid and spirited account of this piece full of stylish playing from the SCO. A performance of Mendelssohn’s ‘Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage’ is also available as a free download, though why this was not included on a disc lasting 61 min. is not explained. The clean quality of the recording on this SACD matches the excellence of the performances, thanks not only to the efforts of the recording team (Philip Hobbs and Robert Cammidge) but also to the spacious acoustic of Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall that adds a pleasing ambience to the bright sound. Altogether a lovely disc that will further enhance the reputation of this gifted and charismatic pianist.

FLOYD: WUTHERING HEIGHTS, Soloists, Florentine Opera Company Chorus, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Joseph Mechavich/Reference FR-721 (2 discs) SACD  America’s foremost living opera composer Carlisle Floyd has just celebrated his 90th birthday and, to his credit, is still continuing to compose new operas. Floyd entitles Wuthering Heights, the work under consideration, as ‘a musical drama in a prologue and three Acts with dramatisation and text by the composer after the novel by Emily Brontë’. In the liner notes with these discs he writes that he is of the opinion that this opera is one of his best, both in text and music – a view with which many may concur having heard this compelling world premier recording on the Reference Recordings Fresh! label. Floyd’s first major opera ‘Susannah’ was a huge success when it was staged in New York in September1956 a few months after its world premier in Tallahassee, making him one of the most highly regarded American opera composers of his generation. Following this success Floyd went on to compose Wuthering Heights (1957-58), a commission from the Santa Fe Opera. Initially the work received some scathing criticism resulting in the composer making major revisions to both the music and the libretto and it is this revised version that is recorded on these two SACDs. To set Emily Brönte’s classic tale of ill-fated love and revenge to music is an ambitious project for any composer to undertake, something Bernard Herrmann discovered when after eight years of toil he eventually completed his opera of the same name in 1951. For much of the work Floyd writes in an expressive parlando style that allows the words to be clearly heard even when the voices are competing with large orchestral forces. The dark brooding orchestral score is, even allowing for the tragic nature of the story, mellifluous and often lushly romantic in the style of Puccini and Samuel Barber as, for example, in Edgar’s aria “Then marry me Cathy and make me whole again” (Act 2 Scene 2 ) ardently delivered by tenor Vale Rideout. Floyd’s confident handling of his orchestral palette and his ability to create atmosphere is clear from the start where the doleful horns that open the work immediately capture the bleakness of the North Yorkshire moor setting. It would be hard to imagine a more committed and much better sung performance than that given here by the Florentine Opera Company, one that has the imprimatur of the composer. The casting of the principal roles is very strong and led by the the soprano Georgia Jarman as Cathy and the baritone Kelly Markgraf as Heathcliff. Jarman’s gleaming soprano has the power to ride over the orchestra when required, but she can also sing with great tenderness and her impassioned portrayal of the opera’s tragic heroine is wonderfully expressive throughout. Kelly Markgraf is a commanding and virile sounding Heathcliff whose rhapsodic account of “Was there ever another place in all the world like this!” (Act 1 Scene1) makes him the epitome of the romantic hero. The singers of the supporting roles generally don’t disappoint, with Susanne Mentzer (Nelly) and Heather Buck (Isabella) worthy of special mention. The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, firmly directed by Joseph Mechavich, does full justice to Floyd’s dramatic score with responsive and vibrant playing sumptuously recorded.
The concert recording took place on January 9th and 11th 2015 at the Sharon Lynne Wilson Centre for the Arts, Harris Theatre, Brookfield, Wisconsin with the composer acting as artistic adviser and the Soundmirror recording team have certainly captured the feel of a staged performance. The recording (5.1 multi channel and 2.0 stereo) was made and post-produced in DSD 256 and is both rich and spacious.  The two discs are supplied in a shrink-wrapped double SACD case with the complete libretto simply placed on top of the box. Use of a slip case would have been advantageous as with nowhere to store it once the wrapping is removed, the libretto could easily be mislaid. Another odd point is that the singers do not always sing the exact words given in the printed libretto which sometimes makes it difficult to follow – no explanation is given for this. I would have also welcomed more cue points, (those provided only come between Scenes) and a less awkward side break between the two discs. These minor quibbles of presentation in no way detract from what is, in every respect, a very fine achievement.

 

The Russians and others: New CDs & SACDs

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TCHAIKOVSKY & GRIEG: PIANO CONCERTOS, Dennis Kozhukin, Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, Vassily Sinaisky/PentaTone PTC 518 6566  In the modern age, certain performances have gone beyond the status of recording classics to become nigh-definitive statements on the works involved, against which all subsequent recordings have to be measured. (A classic example of this is Andre Previn’s earlier RCA recording of Walton’s First Symphony – few subsequent performances were able to match it, not even the conductor’s own underpowered later reading.) Similarly, Martha Argerich’s celebrated DG account of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto has seen off most subsequent rivals in this repertoire, and its sheer élan still makes it a prime contender today. So how does this latest rival from PentaTone compare? It almost goes without saying that in one respect at least, the newcomer scores over its predecessors in the sheer quality of recorded sound, so wide-ranging and nuanced is the PentaTone recording. But such sound issues – while important – must be matched by performance of similar quality, and while Kozhukin may not quite match Argerich’s authority in this most overplayed of warhorses, it is a remarkably persuasive performance. What’s more,  combined with such an exemplary recording, the disc is sure to tempt many listeners – particularly when coupled (as here) with a dramatic reading of another warhorse, the Grieg Concerto. Leaving aside gradations in performances, if you are after these two works in the best modern sound, you need not hesitate. But hang onto that Argerich disc.

OVERTURES FROM THE BRITISH ISLES, VOL. 2: Sir Hubert Parry, Sir Alexander, John Ansell, Dame Ethel, Roger Quilter, John Foulds, Eric Coates, Sir William Walton, Walter Leigh, York Bowen BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Rumon Gamba/CHANDOS CHAN 10898  Familiarity doesn’t necessarily breed contempt, but much as the enthusiast may love playing Ein Heldenleben or Petrushka for the umpteenth time, they sometimes feel the need for some unfamiliar repertoire – and the resulting frisson is precisely what Chandos are providing with this series of British pieces which (the Walton apart) have largely slipped from the repertoire (if they ever held a position in the first place). Rumon Gamba and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales supply a welcome second volume in their excavation of neglected overtures from the British Isles. As Gamba observed: ‘All the overtures on this disc belong to the period between 1890 and 1945. In this present selection, however, we see perhaps even more clearly the evolution of musical style, and in particular the use of harmony, in the armoury of the British composer.’

BURGESS: Mr W.S. – Ballet Suite for Orchestra, Marche pour une revolution, Mr Burgess’s Almanack, Brown University Orchestra, Paul Phillips/NAXOS 8.573472  This writer was once contracted to give a talk at the Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester, and wandering around the campus somewhat lost, I suddenly heard some slightly acerbic music issuing from a doorway – and realised that I had found the Burgess Foundation. Anthony Burgess, celebrated author of A Clockwork Orange, memorably filmed by Stanley Kubrick, once said, “I wish people would think of me as a musician who writes novels, instead of a novelist who writes music on the side.” Initially thwarted in his desire for a professional musical career, Burgess returned to composition in the mid-1970s, writing prolifically in many genres. Essentially, the music is largely of academic interest – Burgess is a far more distinctive novelist than composer – but perhaps deserves investigation. His music is mostly tonal but sometimes dissonant, a hybrid of Holst and Hindemith. Mr W.S. is an imaginative evocation of the Elizabethan era while Mr Burgess’s Almanack is a variegated work of ingenuity and charm with a nod towards modernism. This is the first recording of Burgess’s orchestral music.

RADECKE: ORCHESTRAL WORKS: Overture: Shakespeare’s König Johann’, Op. 25; Symphony in F major, Op. 50; Nachtstück, Op. 55; Zwei Scherzi, Op. 52, Sinfonie Orchester Biel Solothurn, Kaspar Zehnder/CPO  Let’s be honest: there are no neglected masterpieces on offer here, but for those with a taste for more arcane fare, a certain adventurousness may pay dividends. Radecke was a composer whose significant and multifaceted oeuvre contributed significantly to music history in Berlin and Germany. With this release, his romantic music now celebrates its recording premiere on CPO.

WEINBERGER: Overture to a Chivalrous Play; Six Bohemian Songs and Dances; Passacaglia, Jörg Strodthoff, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Gerd Albrecht/Capriccio C5272  Did Jaromir Weinberger, marooned in the US, commit suicide after his failure to consolidate the success of his opera Schwanda the Bagpiper? Whatever the truth, this unusual disc is proof that the composer was more than a one-hit wonder, with some very attractive and colourful music on offer — and given persuasive advocacy.

ALBENIZ: ORCHESTRAL WORKS: Suite Española (arr. Frühbeck de Burgos) / Suite from The Magic Opal / Piano Concerto No. 1 Concierto fantástico / Rapsodia Española (orch. George Enescu), Martin Roscoe (Piano) / BBC Philharmonic / Juanjo Mena/CHANDOS 10897  The enterprising Chandos Spanish Music series (La Música de España, with the BBC Philharmonic and Juanjo Mena) has now embraced Isaac Albéniz, one of the most colourful of Spanish composers. The Suite Española looks forward to the influential great piano collection Iberia, composed two decades later, in which, as Debussy observed, Albéniz ‘put the best of himself’. Lively, energetic readings here, perhaps not matching those by Frühbeck de Burgos.

RAVEL: ORCHESTRATIONS, Orchestre National de Lyon, Leonard Slatkin/ NAXOS: 8573124  Few would dispute Maurice Ravel’s unmatched skill in orchestration, both in his own music and that of other composers. This disc is a prime sampling of the composers skill in that arena, with his command of colour evident both in his own works and in his arrangements of music by others. A further addition to the catalogue of Ravel recordings from Leonard Slatkin and the Orchestre National de Lyon, this disc includes his versions of Chabrier’s vibrant Menuet pompeux, Schumann’s colourful Carnaval and his late friend Debussy’s Sarabande et Danse. Ravel’s iconic orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition vividly depicts scenes ranging from the playful to the macabre

KHACHATURIAN: Symphony No. 2, ‘The Bell’, Lermontov Suite (excerpts), Russian Philharmonic Orchestra, Dmitry Yablonsky/NAXOS 8.570436  There are not many versions of Khachaturian’s Symphony No. 2 in the catalogue, but in terms of giving this music the most dramatic possible reading, this new disc — while highly accomplished – does not unseat the rival reading by Tjeknavorian, still the most striking accorded to the piece. Besides his ever-popular ballet Spartacus (Suites Nos. 1–3 are on Naxos 8.550801), Khachaturian also wrote other stage music, including a splendid score for Boris Lavrenyov’s play about the great Russian author Mikhail Lermontov. The composer described his powerful Second Symphony, written during the final years of World War II, as ’a requiem of wrath, a requiem of protest against war and violence’. At crucial junctures, three tubular bells toll, giving the symphony its memorable subtitle.

RACHMANINOV: ALL-NIGHT VIGIL (VESPERS) London Symphony Orchestra and chorus, Simon Halsey/LSO Live SACD LSO 0781  Andre Previn, mentioned in connection with his Walton recording above, once pointed out with some passion that the unenthusiastic notice given to Rachmaninov in the Grove dictionary of music was severely out of date, given the composer’s re-evaluation as a major figure, and as someone fully of that opinion, I have listened over the years to the composer’s much-loved Vespers, trusting the scales will someday fall from my eyes (or ears) and I will be able to see why so many esteem this piece so highly. But just a few bars of it had me running back to the symphonies and the piano music. It is unquestionably a masterpiece, but the very restricted sound palette ultimately exhausts this listener’s interest. However, that’s my problem, and if you are among the Rachmaninov enthusiasts who love the work, it’s hard to imagine it given a better reading than that delivered by Halsey and his LSO forces.

FRICKER: THE VISION OF JUDGEMENT OP. 29, SYMPHONY NO.5 FOR ORGAN & ORCHESTRA, OP. 74, Jane Manning, soprano • Robert Tear, tenor, Leeds Festival Chorus, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Charles Groves, Gillian Weir, organ, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Colin Davis  This BBC Broadcast (1976) is live from the Festival Hall. first performance. The key work here is Fricker’s cataclysmic Symphony No. 5, premiered by organist Gillian Weir with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Colin Davis in the presence of the composer. It was featured at the Proms on 11th August 1976 with the organist Jennifer Bate and the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra under John Pritchard. Terse and direct, the score offers some grand gestures in its lively outer sections. Fricker was among the first composers in Britain to be influenced by the music of Béla Bartók, Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky, assimilating aspects of their very different styles into a distinctive musical voice of his own.

DAWN TO DUST: Works by Augusta Read Thomas, Nico Muhly, and Andrew Norman, The Utah Symphony, Thierry Fisacher/Reference SACD FR-719  Some unusual world premiere recordings here of pieces commissioned by the Utah Symphony. The level of invention is high in these works by leading composers Augusta Read Thomas, Nico Muhly, and Andrew Norman (percussionist Colin Currie performs on Andrew Norman’s “Switch.”) The Utah Symphony, celebrating its 75th anniversary in the 2015-16 season, is one of America’s major symphony orchestras and here delivers adventurous fare.

SHOSTAKOVICH, MATTHEWS: Piano Quintets, Villiers Quartet et al/Somm B01C5PTVTI  It’s a measure of David Matthews’ achievement that this recording of his cheerful piano quintet is able to sit neatly alongside Shostakovich’s masterpiece and more than hold its own. Matthews wrote his Piano Quintet in 2004 as an engagement present for his wife Jenifer, so in his view, its overall happy mood is appropriate. The composer notes in the CD: When I wrote a piano quartet in 1995 I called it A Song and Dance Sketchbook because I didn’t want to follow the classical formal scheme, but also to acknowledge that each of its six movements was either a song or a dance. In this Piano Quintet I chose to adhere, more or less, to the traditional scheme: four movements, with a scherzo and a slow movement in the middle. The song and dance element, however, remains just as predominant.’ Both works are authoritatively performed here.

RACHMANINOV: COMPLETE PIANO WORKS BY EARL WILD VOL. 2, Giovanni Doria Miglietta/Piano Classics  If you are an aficionado of the piano music of Rachmaninov and have every note of it, here is fare that will not necessarily be familiar. The second instalment of Rachmaninov’s complete piano Works by Earl Wild is a reminder that Wild (1915‐2010) was without doubt one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century. His immense repertoire, his staggering virtuosity, his warmth and his charm deserve him the epithet legendary. Wild was a great improviser as well, and he frequently played his own fantasies in his concerts. Fortunately he transcribed these pieces, and his creative legacy contains a wealth of transcriptions, fantasies and paraphrases, as well as original piano works. This CD features the complete recording of Wild’s famous transcriptions of Rachmaninov songs.

TCHAIKOVSKY: SYMPHONY NO. 6 IN B MINOR, OP. 74, DVOŘÁK: RUSALKA FANTASY (arr. Honeck/Ille), Manfred Honeck, Pittsburgh Symphony/REFRENCE SACD FR-720  While there may be umpteen recordings (even in the surround sound medium) of the Tchaikovsky symphony on offer here, we are given a truly exemplary reading – and what makes Honeck’s disc particularly attractive is the companion piece, a sumptuous recording of orchestral passages from Dvorak’s Rusalka arranged in the form of a splendid suite by the conductor – and that alone makes this disc particularly attractive for enthusiasts. In the best possible audiophile sound, Reference gives us Tchaikovsky’s last (completed) symphony, of which the composer said: “I absolutely consider it to be the best, and in particular, the most sincere of all my creations. I love it as I have never loved any of my other musical offspring.”

Erik NORDGREN: The Bergman Suites Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra Adriano/Naxos 8573370   In his later films, Ingmar Bergman was to eschew conventional scores, other than the use of either Bach keyboard music or some very modest atonal writing; this disc is a reminder of an era when he utilised orchestral scores. Erik Nordgren, whose compositions include major concertos and chamber music, wrote seventeen film scores for Ingmar Bergman. The finest examples of their close collaboration can be heard on this recording. They include the symphonically proportioned Waiting Women, the suggestive and mysterious score for Wild Strawberries and the exceptional economy of The Face.

GILBERT & SULLIVAN: HMS PINAFORE, Soloists, Scottish Opera Richard Egarr, Lynne CKD522  This is a lively and ingratiating reading of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic masterpiece, ruled hors de combat for this listener by the ill-judged participation of Tim Brooke-Taylor as narrator; why anyone considered this notion would be something that would reward repeated listings is frankly beyond me. But if you don’t share this opinion, the opera is dispatched in energetic fashion.