Graham Williams Reviews

Distinctive Tchaikovsky from Fischer


TCHAIKOVSKY: SYMPHONY NO.6, ETC., Budapest Festival Orchestra, Ivan Fischer/Channel Classics SACDCCSA37016  It is now more than ten years since Ivan Fischer and his crack Budapest Festival Orchestra recorded a Tchaikovsky symphony for Channel Classics. Back then it was the 4th Symphony, a version that while widely praised did receive minor criticism in some quarters for a couple of idiosyncrasies in Fischer’s conducting. Over the intervening period both Fischer and his orchestra have produced a series of outstanding recordings that clearly illustrate how this conductor has now become, more than ever, a facilitator who brilliantly links the composer and composition with us, the listeners. His interpretive ideas, underpinned by a fierce musical intelligence, have increasingly become a means to that end rather than representing any attempt at self-aggrandisement. Continue reading

Superlative Mendelssohn from Gardiner


MENDELSSOHN: SYMPHONIES 1 & 4, London Symphony Orchestra, Sir John Eliot Gardiner (conductor), LSO0769 (2 discs)  The first two issues in Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s ongoing cycle of the Mendelssohn Symphonies with the London Symphony Orchestra placed them at a stroke into the top echelon of the most recommendable versions of these justifiably venerated and much recorded works. This coupling of the composer’s 1st and 4th Symphonies confirms without doubt that position. Sir John’s pre-eminence in the field of historically informed style is well known from his many recordings with the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique and the English Baroque Soloists. Here he brilliantly imparts his expertise to the responsive players of the LSO with predictably exciting results. As is to be expected the violins are antiphonally divided, the strings use little or no vibrato and the timpani is played with hard sticks. What is not apparent in an audio only release is that in all the concerts of this cycle from which these recordings are taken the violin and viola sections play standing up. Gardiner believes that this gives the players a freedom that translates into a different type of dynamism and energy in the performances. Continue reading

Olga Jegunova: Poetic Piano Sonatas


POETIC PIANO SONATAS: BEETHOVEN, CHOPIN, BARTOK, Olga Jegunova, piano/Music & Media MMC 114   It is an ambitious programme that the talented pianist Olga Jegunova has chosen for this winning recital, but it proves to be the perfect showcase for her nuanced and sensitive talents. Beethoven’s ‘Waldstein’ Sonata is given a reading which stresses the poetic (as per the album’s title) as opposed to the monumental aspect of the music, but bids fair to hold its own against the formidable competition in this piece over the years. Similarly, Chopin’s ‘Funeral March’ Sonata is handled with great thoughtfulness, and the final item, Bartok’s Sonata sz. 80 is dispatched with the kind of neurotic energy that the piece demands. Those wondering, though, how this final percussive work can be included in a recital called ‘Poetic Piano Sonatas’, should note that Jegunova has selected (and comissioned) poetry to accompany and illuminate each piece — added value, in fact. It’s a striking disc, and the recording quality, while lacking the resonance of an SACD disc, has a remarkably faithful piano tone with a modest concert hall ambience.

From America to the Antipodes


BENNETT: OLD AMERICAN DANCES, etc.: Suite of Old American Dances / Symphonic Songs for Band* / Down to the Sea in Ships* / Four Preludes for Band / Autobiography, RNCM Wind Orchestra / Clark Rundell / Mark Heron* Chandos 10916  Clued-up admirers of film and Broadway musicals will be well aware of the talents of such arrangers as Conrad Salinger and Robert Russell Bennett . Their exquisite orchestrations greatly enhanced and finessed the work of such composers as Rodgers and Hammerstein and Cole Porter. Personally, I’ve always been an admirer of both men (as is the conductor John Wilson, who programs much of their material in his concerts) and I even tracked down Bennett’s hard-to-find autobiography. It’s clear from the latter that Bennett slightly resented the neglect of his more serious orchestral music, although the Naxos label has recorded some of the latter. Long after his death, that omission is being remedied at intervals, and this new disc on Chandos may go some way to righting that wrong. These pieces for wind band are full of the piquant writing that is Bennett’s trademark, and though the Naxos recording of the composer’s Old American Dances is more lithe and pointed, this is still an exemplary reading, coupled with unrecorded and unfamiliar material in the same winning vein. The RNCM Wind Orchestra under its director Clark Rundell and guest conductor Mark Heron do justice to this programme of works by Bennett.

GRANADOS: Orchestral Works, Vol. 3 Liliana – Lyric Poem† (arr. Casals) Suite oriental† • Elisenda* Dani Espasa, Piano* Barcelona Symphony Orchestra Pablo González †WORLD PREMIÈRE RECORDING/Naxos 8.573265  Classical music aficionados often lament the appearance of yet another set of Beethoven’s symphonies, so it’s always refreshing to welcome music which is new to the recorded repertoire. That is very much the case with this colourful and attractive music. In the last of this three volume series devoted to Granados’s orchestral music, two very different compositional strands are explored. The early Suite oriental reveals his sense of vivid orchestral colour and melodic imagination, couched in the exotic language of the time. Written in a more pared-down style, the one-act ‘lyric poem’ Liliana, a collaboration with the writer Apel·les Mestres, is a four movement suite in which Granados conjures up a vivid, mythical world. Elisenda is another impressionistic score, both emotive and ethereal, here performed in its arrangement for piano and chamber orchestra.

BACH: CHRISTMAS ORATORIO, Dunedin Consort, John Butt/Linn CKD 499  Are you of the opinion that Bach’s much-loved Christmas Oratorio has nothing new to offer you? Think again. This splendid new release is virtually an exemplar of how period practice aligned with sharp and energetic performance can ensure a very familiar piece comes up fresh as paint. That’s very much the case here, and the set is a further indication of how Butt’s highly individual approach to baroque scores pays dividends.

BERLIOZ: ROMEO ET JULIETTE, ETC. Op. 17* / Marche troyenne (Trojan March) / Chasse royale et Orage (Royal Hunt and Storm)† Michèle Losier (mezzo-soprano)* / Samuel Boden (tenor)* / David Soar (bass)* BBC Symphony Chorus*† / BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sir Andrew Davis/Chandos CHSA 5169(2)  Of the slew of recent recordings of Berlioz’s Romeo et Juliette, this impressive disc by Andrew Davis and the BBCSO has rather a wide dynamic range. Given that so much of the piece is quiet, turning up results in some very loud tutti passages for domestic listening. But caveats aside, this is a particularly persuasive reading, and more nuances of the composer’s vast command of the orchestra are in evidence here than in other readings. On this new SACD, the BBC SO and its Conductor Laureate Sir Andrew Davis mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death with this performance and excerpts from his largest opera, Les Troyens – but the latter prompts, however, one other caveat: the extracts from the opera are efficient but curiously low-key, without the fiery advocacy given by such conductors as Colin Davis. Nevertheless, the set remains desirable.

LAJTHA (1892–1963) Orchestral Works, Vol. 1 Symphony No. 1 Suite pour orchestre In memoriam Pécs Symphony Orchestra Nicolás Pasquet/Naxos 8.573327  If you’re an admirer of the music of Bartok, you owe it to yourself to investigate László Lajtha, who remains Hungary’s foremost symphonist and one of the country’s greatest composers of the first half of the twentieth century. His music shows reflections of the musical language of his compatriot (as does that of another talented Hungarian, Miklos Rózsa), and it’s particularly good to see Pasquet’s pioneering discs available again at very affordable Naxos prices. Written when he was 44, the vigorous and optimistic Symphony No. 1, Op. 24 reveals a strong affinity with Latin and French models and with indigenous Hungarian folk-music. By 1941, when In memoriam was composed, the mood had darkened and this work is a shocking yet eloquent protest against the brutality of war. The delicious four movement Suite pour orchestre was compiled by the composer from his ballet Lysistrata.

KHACHATURIAN: SYMPHONIES, VOL. 1; SYMPHONY NO. 2 IN A MINOR; 3 CONCERT ARIAS: POEM, LEGENDE, DITHYRAMBUS  Julia Bauer, Robert-Schumann-Philharmonie, Frank Beermann/CPO 777972-2  It has to be said that the earlier recording by Tjeknavorian of Khachaturian’s mighty Second Symphony has greater dynamism and drama, but if you’re not familiar with that reading, there are many rewards to be found in this extremely well recorded new edition. With this disc, CPO launch a new Khachaturian edition featuring the composer’s complete symphonies. Vol. 1 focuses on his magnificently dimensioned Symphony No. 2, which functions as a heroic, Soviet ‘War Symphony’.

MESSIAEN/MULLER/KIRCHNER: Beyond Time – Zurich Ensemble/ARS Produktion ARS38205 SACD/Discovery  Let’s be frank, the new works by Muller and Kirchner on this exceptionally well recorded disc will not be played often by most listeners; the real attraction here is a totally persuasive reading of Messiaen’s remarkable Quartet for the End of Time, which — in terms of the wide dynamic range of the recording — leaves earlier performances standing, particularly in the disc’s very faithful SACD sound. The Zurich Ensemble chose to record a programme featuring composers of three different generations, with each work touching upon a different aspect of existence. Each of the selected works has its roots in ‘lived experience’ while at the same time offering universal, timeless truths. Fabian Müller’s Am Anfang (In the Beginning) is a musical rendering of creation myths and ‘attempts at inventing the world’ by author Tim Krohn. Exil by Volker David Kirchner deals with questions of individual isolation as well as internal and external emigration. Neither of the latter pieces are distinctive; for the Messiaen alone, however, resounding approval.

FROM MELBA TO SUNDERLAND; Australian Singers on Record, various artists/Decca Eloquence 482 5892  Given that the two most famous Australian sopranos — Dames Nellie Melba and Joan Sutherland — have been included in this wide-ranging, generous collection, it’s hardly surprising that the discs represent a kind of epic journey for the Antipodean voice. It goes without saying that the scrawny-sounding early recordings require a certain indulgence on the part of the listener, but for admirers of great singing, the journey is well worthwhile. Some might quibble with the extremely eclectic selection of material, but that does demonstrate the range of achievement here.

COPLAND: ORCHESTRAL WORKS, VOL. 2: Symphony for Organ and Orchestra* / Symphonic Ode / Short Symphony (Symphony No. 2) /Orchestral Variations John Wilson / BBC Philharmonic / Jonathan Scott (organ)*/Chandos SACD CHSA 5171  John Wilson’s second Copland disc eschews the more popular crowd-pleasing ballets of its predecessor for such items as the for the not-greatly-ingratiating Short Symphony and other pieces, but admirers of the composer will find the music here is given the greatest possible advocacy. A discovery for many people will be the cataclysmic Organ Symphony, which, while more than powerful enough, doesn’t quite match the apocalyptic quality of the Michel Tilson Thomas/San Francisco reading. But in this context, it’s part of very persuasive programme which throws light on a neglected area of the composer’s career.

NIELSEN, DEBUSSY, FRANÇAIX: CLARINET CONCERTOS, Vladimir Soltan, Hamburger Symphoniker, Jose Luis Gomez/MDG SACD 901 1964-6  Nielsen’s spiky and rebarbative Clarinet Concerto (with its aggressive side drum echoing the composer’s masterpiece, the Fifth Symphony) has been well served on disc and has even made its way successfully onto the SACD medium. Vladimir Soltan’s is a particularly persuasive reading full of great character – such an essential ingredient in any reading of this piece. The very short Debussy piece (a mere eight minutes – hardly a concerto!) and the Françaix are given eloquent readings.

WEINBERG: SYMPHONY NO. 17, SUITE FOR ORCHESTRA, Siberian Sate Symphony Orchestra, Vladimir Lande/Naxos 8.573565  There is no visible slowing up in the very welcome stream of recordings of the once-neglected music of Weinberg, and this is not the first appearance on disc of the impressive Symphony Number 17, ‘Memory’. The disc does, however, include a reading of the lightweight Suite for Orchestra which is a very winning piece. Admittedly, this is the kind of undemanding music that was designed to please the crass Soviet apparatchiks who did not like the composer (or his Jewishness), but it’s no less attractive for that. The Symphony is given a very strong and characterful reading.



New Chandos, Channel Classics & LSO Live reviewed by Graham Williams


COPLAND: ORCHESTRAL WORKS, VOL. 2: Symphony for Organ and Orchestra* / Symphonic Ode / Short Symphony (Symphony No. 2) /Orchestral Variations John Wilson / BBC Philharmonic / Jonathan Scott (organ)* Chandos SACD CHSA 5171 This rewarding second volume in the Chandos’s survey of Copland Orchestral works from John Wilson and the BBC Philharmonic could hardly be more different from the first that appeared in January this year. Vol.1 featured three of the composer’s most popular ballets – immediately accessible music full of memorable tunes and catchy syncopated rhythms. Though the music here is somewhat more astringent, it does possess an uncompromising muscularity that will be appreciated by admirers of this composer, especially when as well performed and recorded as here. Copland began his imposing 1924 ‘Symphony for Organ and Orchestra’ in France while he was still studying with Nadia Boulanger to whom the work is dedicated and it was this piece that first brought fame to the young composer. Unusually it has three movements like a concerto which is possibly why Copland wrote that the “ organ is treated as an integral part of the orchestra rather than as a solo instrument with orchestral accompaniment”. Nevertheless the work is in most respects a virtuoso concerto, and, as Jonathan Scott the superb organ soloist on this recording notes, the organ writing is deceptively complex from both rhythmic and technical viewpoints. Wilson and the BBC Philharmonic give a scintillating performance of the Symphony with vivid and incisive playing that makes the most of Copland’s brilliant scoring, especially in the propulsive jazzy scherzo and the sweeping grandeur of the finale. Best of all, the recording of the Organ Symphony took place in the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester (16 January 2016) one of Britain’s finest concert halls in terms of its spacious acoustic and tonal clarity. Naturally Jonathan Scott is able to demonstrate to the full the range and capability of the hall’s magnificent pipe organ built by Marcussen & Søn of Aabenraa in Denmark, while organ buffs will enjoy reading the instrument’s full specification printed in the liner notes. The Chandos engineering team have excelled themselves in capturing both the subtle detail and also the awe-inspiring scale of the piece in magnificent 5.0 multi-channel sound. The remaining three works on the disc were recorded in the orchestra’s home studio at MediaCityUK, Salford. In 1957 Copland made an orchestral arrangement of his ‘Piano Variations’ – originally composed in 1930 – in response to a commission from the Louisville Symphony Orchestra. This is one of the composer’s least performed orchestral works, its generally stern demeanour, jagged harmonies and taut construction seemingly not to have found favour with the public at large. Wilson and the BBC Philharmonic though make a very strong case for the piece with their committed and crisply recorded performance. Copland’s Short Symphony (Symphony No.2), dedicated to his friend the composer Carlos Chávez who successfully premiered the work (after no less than ten rehearsals!) in 1934, is cast in three connected movements (fast-slow-fast). It is a playful and vivacious piece with immediate listener appeal that at times seems to anticipate both the later Cowboy ballets and ‘El Salon Mexico’. Listening to the almost effortless assurance with which the brilliant BBC Philharmonic musicians manage the rhythmic intricacies of this score it is hard to believe that it was once thought to be unplayable.
The imposing ‘Symphonic Ode’ (1927-29) that completes this programme was originally scored for a huge orchestra requiring eighteen brass players and an enormous percussion section. Declamatory passages for heavy brass alternate with both jazzy and more reflective sections and the piece eventually builds to a pounding, almost Mahlerian, peroration. Copland revised it in 1955 for the more modest forces heard here but, in spite of his attempt to make it more accessible, this austere work has made little headway in the concert hall. Wilson obviously believes in the piece and his orchestra perform it with their characteristic flare. Once again the Chandos recording is first rate with pin sharp detail and a spacious sound stage typical of the MediaCity studio and the excellent work of engineer Stephen Rinker. Strongly recommended.

BACH: THE ART OF FUGUE, Rachel Podger (violin, director), Brecon Baroque, Channel Classics, SACD B01I4CIFBQ  For her latest release on Channel Classics, Rachel Podger turns to Bach’s late masterpiece ‘The Art of Fugue’. She is joined in this enterprise by the four key members of her expert period ensemble Brecon Baroque: the violinist Johannes Pramsohler (who also plays second viola), Jane Rogers (viola), Allison McGillivray (cello) and Marcin Świątkiewicz (harpsichord). Bach began to assemble the constituent parts of ‘The Art of Fugue’, in the early 1740s, but it remained unfinished at the time of his death in 1750. The work comprises 14 fugues and 4 canons, each based on a single subject, and though he did not specify an order for the pieces, they are usually performed in order of increasing contrapuntal complexity. But as so often with a work left incomplete at the time of a composer’s death many intriguing questions are left unanswered. In this case the main one is that because the work is written in open score and Bach did not indicate any instrumentation then how should it best be realised for performance? For the majority of recorded versions the answer is on keyboard instruments (harpsichord, piano or organ), but the use of other instrumental combinations is equally valid as demonstrated most successfully on this compelling SACD. Rachel Podger and her colleagues are justly celebrated as exceptional artists in the period performance field and they deliver wonderfully expressive performances of each of the eighteen fugues and canons that make up Bach’s astonishing work with a technical finesse that is beyond reproach. The varied combinations of string instruments used here add spice and variety to each of the pieces. There is a rich mellownness to the string sounds and throughout the players ensure that every line is clearly defined so one can follow even the most complex strands with ease. Special praise is due to Marcin Świątkiewicz for the fluent and thoughtful playing of his two allotted solos, the Canon alla Duodecima (tr.13) and Canon alla Decima (tr.15). The final fugue (Contrapunctus14) is performed unfinished, as Bach left it, a poignant reminder of the transience of life. It need hardly be stated that Jared Sacks’s multi-channel DSD recording is, as always, state-of-the-art, capturing the warm acoustic of London’s Church of Saint Jude-on-the- Hill to perfection and giving the instruments an almost holographic vividness set within a realistic sound stage. Scholarly and thought provoking notes by John Butt complete a most desirable issue.

RACHMANINOV: SYMPHONY NO. 1, BALAKIREV: TAMARA, London Symphony Orchestra, Valery Gergiev (conductor), LSO Live LSO 0784  This is the fourth and possibly final disc of the survey of Rachmaninov’s orchestral works from Valery Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra. The main work here is the composer’s 1st Symphony but the disc also includes Balakirev’s symphonic poem ‘Tamara’ making only its second appearance on SACD. Both pieces were recorded on 19th February 2015 at the Barbican. The bad press that Rachmaninov’s 1st Symphony received following its 1897 premiere in Moscow has faded into history, and the work has long been accepted as a bold and imaginative piece worthy of the composer at his finest. The fact that the original score was lost and eventually reconstructed in 1945 from a set of orchestral parts discovered at the conservatory in Saint Petersburg has led some interpreters to ‘spice up’ the score with extra percussion, especially in the central section of first movement and it is worth noting that Gergiev eschews such additions. With the LSO in top form Gergiev’s powerful and committed interpretation impresses from the outset. As usual, he seats the orchestra with double basses on the left and the violins placed antiphonally. The benefits of this are clear to hear not only in his purposeful account of the opening movement but throughout the symphony. The two middle movements are paced with an assurance born of experience. The scherzo is fleet, with delicate contributions from every section of his responsive orchestra, while the flowing tempo he adopts for the slow movement, combined with beautifully nuanced orchestral playing, ensures that any longueurs are avoided. The finale is urgent and builds magnificently to a forceful percussion capped climax whose impressive sonic impact is only slightly constrained by the familiar acoustic limitations of the Barbican Hall. Gergiev’s recording of Rachmaninov’s 3rd Symphony also included his account of Balakirev’s ‘Russia’, but here we are given a much more compelling composition by the same composer. The symphonic poem ‘Tamara’ is a colourful orchestral work based on a ballad by the Russian Romantic poet Mikhail Lermontov and was dedicated to Liszt. Though Balakirev began the piece in 1867 it had a long gestation period and did not receive its first performance until 1883 when it was premiered with the composer conducting. The story tells of a beautiful but evil princess who lives in a tower above the river Terek. Her singing lures travellers to a night of orgiastic passion after which she kills them and throws their bodies into the river. Gergiev gives a fine account of the work, establishing plenty of brooding atmosphere at the start and building to a thrilling climax thanks to the virtuosic playing of the LSO. This disc is a worthy successor to the conductor’s previous Rachmaninov recordings and admirers of those need not hesitate to add this one to their libraries.