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The First Surround Sound Symphonia Domestica reviewed by Graham Williams

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  1. STRAUSS: SYMPHONIA DOMESTICA, Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, Marek Janowski/PENTATONE SACD PTC 5186 507 All Straussians will be delighted with the appearance of this handsome SACD release of Richard Strauss’s ‘Symphonia Domestica’ from Marek Janowski and his splendid Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra.  Janowski’s pre-eminence in Wagner may have overshadowed his reputation as a Strauss interpreter of distinction, but those with long memories will remember that he was the conductor of the first ever uncut recording of Strauss’s opera ‘Die Schweigsame Frau’ for EMI and more recently he made a compelling account of the ‘Alpine Symphony’ for PENTATONE. The ‘Symphonia Domestica’ was written in 1903 and is the penultimate of Strauss’s many tone poems. The work is a musical portrait of one day in the life of the Strauss household and is dedicated appropriately to “To my dear wife and son”.  Shortly after the work’s premiere, which took place in New York during his American tour in 1904, the composer faced considerable criticism, not for the music per se, but for his ‘bad taste’ in depicting aspects of his private life that included his sexual relations with his wife, their frequent quarrelling and the musical onomatopoeic yelling of their baby son at bedtime. Such criticism seems rather quaint, if not ridiculous, from today’s standpoint in a world dominated by social media where the most intimate details of celebrities’ lives are frequently open to pernicious scrutiny with ease via the Internet. Though the work has four sections that roughly correspond to the movements of a symphony, including a ‘Scherzo’, ‘Adagio’ and a ‘Finale’, it is probably best viewed as a large-scale symphonic poem in one continuous movement integrated by the constantly recurring themes of its three characters (husband, wife and child) that are presented in the opening section. The instrumentation of the ‘Symphonia Domestica’ is even more extravagant than that of Strauss’s previous tone poem ‘Ein Heldenleben’ – triple woodwind, that unusually includes an oboe d’amore, eight horns, four saxophones a large percussion section, two harps and strings. Strauss uses these gargantuan forces for the most part with surprising delicacy and only in the complex polyphony of the fugal ‘Finale’ does he unleash them with an exhilarating élan that while thrilling can verge on the bombastic. There have been many fine recordings of the piece, including some from conductors who knew the composer personally – Krauss, Szell, Karajan and Reiner – and other more recent recommendable versions to which this new one can certainly be added.  Somewhat to my surprise Marek Janowski directs a fairly spacious and relaxed performance of the work, but one that does allow beautifully shaped and affectionate phrasing from the players of his responsive Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra in the many solos that Strauss gives them throughout the work.  Thanks to meticulously judged balances Janowski manages to achieve the utmost clarity and precision throughout; seemingly undaunted by the challenges presented by the huge orchestra’s complex textures, especially in the Finale. His meticulous control of dynamics is also most impressive, whilst the brilliance of the playing ensures that all the big climaxes are thrillingly delivered. Janowski’s buoyant and supple account of the ‘Symphonia Domestica’, sumptuously recorded by the Polyhymnia team in vivid 5.0 multi-channel DSD, is surely one that all who admire this piece will wish to add to their libraries. What, however, makes this release quite unmissable is the second work on the disc – ‘Die Tageszeiten’ (Times of the Day) for male voice chorus and orchestra – a real Strauss rarity. In 1924 Victor Keldorfer conductor of the Vienna Schubert Society took the opportunity to ask Strauss to write something for the choir, and suggested that texts by Josef Eichendorf might be suitable. Though initially dubious, Strauss eventually agreed and by 1927 the work was completed. The four Eichendorf poems that Strauss sets are ‘Der Morgen’ (morning), ‘Mittagsruh’ (afternoon rest), ‘Der Abend’ (evening) and ‘Die Nacht’ (night). Strauss’s artistry in matching words and music is incomparable, and each of the four settings possess a glowing mellifluousness and melodic richness that bring to mind the late operas ‘Daphne’ and ‘Capriccio’ and especially the ‘Four Last Songs’, where Strauss again turned to Eichendorf for the final song ‘Im Abendrot’. The firm, disciplined yet sensitive singing of the gentlemen of the excellent Berlin Radio Choir could hardly be bettered, and Janowski elicits the most gorgeous and luminous sonorities from his orchestra. The neglect of ‘Die Tageszeiten’ in the concert hall is perplexing and one can only hope that this beautiful recording will help to bring it into greater prominence. PENTATONE’s liner notes do include full texts and translations of the Eichendorf poems. A most enthusiastic recommendation is warranted for this release.

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SHOSTAKOVICH: SYMPHONY NO. 7, ‘LENINGRAD’, Russian National Orchestra, Parvo Järvi/PENTATONE SACD PTC5186511  How do you solve a problem like Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony? The reputation of the piece has, of course, varied wildly across the years, from its initial massive acclaim in the West to the routine dismissal of what was seen as its banal first movement (parodied by Bartok in his Concerto for Orchestra). Now the dust has settled, we can see it as one of the composer’s most substantial works, if not in the class of his fifth or tenth symphonies. The work needs careful advocacy – along with an important decision regarding conceptual approach. How to treat that relentless first movement with its unvarying side drum? Unsurprisingly Järvi takes exactly what many listeners now consider to be the right approach in current perceptions of the work: that is to say, lean, sinewy and free of bombast — but never at the expense of the sheer overwhelming force of the music, which is always given full measure in this remarkable reading. Swifter than most (it is accommodated on a single disc), this performance is accorded one of PentaTone’s most wide-ranging recordings, and the sheer impact of the climaxes is nigh overwhelming.

RICHARD STRAUSS: AT THE END OF THE RAINBOW, Erich Schulz, director, C Major Blu-ray  Those used to more conventional examinations of musical genius may find this curious patchwork documentary something of a challenge, but Eric Schulz’s approach (which utilises a variety of voices, from conductors to pianists to musicologists) paints a provocative and intriguing portrait of the composer of Also Sprach Zarathustra and Der Rosenkavalier that captures the astonishing fecundity of Strauss’s compositional identity as well as his pawky Bavarian humour. The film is even-handed when dealing with Strauss’s dealing with the Nazis (whose philistinism he cordially loathed). But there are curious omissions: no mention, for instance, of his most important collaborator, the librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and a great deal of the glorious orchestral music is heard – perversely – in piano transcriptions. But this film is still essential viewing for Straussians, not least for its detailed analysis of the composer’s understated talent as a conductor, which is given an almost forensic attention. The Blu-ray has the splendid pictorial values that are the sine qua non of the medium.

ARNOLD: THE COMPLETE SYMPHONIES. CD 1: Symphonies Nos. 1* and 2* / CD 2: Symphonies Nos. 3* and 4* / CD 3: Symphonies Nos. 5*, 6*, 8† / CD 4: Symphonies Nos. 7† and 9†. London Symphony Orchestra* / Richard Hickox*. BBC Philharmonic† / Rumon Gamba† CHAN 10853(4) He may have been cast aside during the Sir William Glock serial music-oriented era of the BBC when accessible modern music such as his was distinctly out of favour, but it’s good to see the fortunes of the late Malcolm Arnold being reversed – and thankfully, he lived long enough to see a revival of interest in his remarkable oeuvre. This four-CD box set presents the complete cycle of the award winning recordings of Sir Malcolm Arnold’s Symphonies under two of the finest conductors of their times, both exclusive to Chandos: the late Richard Hickox and Rumon Gamba, respectively conducting the London Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Philharmonic. The set is a must-have for all fans of Arnold as well as for those who want to know more about his symphonic compositions. Among the English symphonists of the twentieth century, Malcolm Arnold is one of the very few prolific high-profile masters of the genre – comparable to Vaughan Williams and his nine symphonies. The emotional and colouristic range of his style, together with his structural originality, sets his achievements apart from those of his compatriots who, likewise, engaged with the symphony to any significant extent.

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS/MACMILLAN: OBOE CONCERTOS, etc. Nicholas Daniel, oboe, Britten Sinfonia, Macmillan/SACD Harmonia Mundi HMU 807573. With a lambent and sensitive recording, this first appearance of Vaughan Williams’ Oboe Concerto on SACD is a winner – for those, that is, who are open to its subtle charms, which do not reveal themselves instantly to the listener. The same might be said of the contemporary music on this disc, but Macmillan’s Oboe Concerto, which — while it may not be to every taste — is performed with was great subtlety and musicality

MESSIAEN L’AMOUR ET LA FOI TROIS PETITES LITURGIES DE LA PRÉSENCE DIVINE (1943) FOR FEMALE VOICES, PIANO, ONDES MARTENOT, CELESTE, VIBRAPHONE, PERCUSSION AND STRING ORCHESTRA; O SACRUM CONVIVIUM! (1937) A CAPELLA; CINQ RECHANTS (1948) FOR 12 SOLO VOICES Danish National Vocal Ensemble, Danish national Concert Choir, Danish National Chamber Orchestra, Marcus Creed (Cond.)./6.220612 Those who are seduced by the immense impact of Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony often search in vain for other music from the composer with the same overwhelming impact. The pieces here are definitely not in that category, but share the same sound world. Three of Messiaen’s most passionate vocal masterworks are presented on this programme, from the visionary “Trois petites liturgies de la Présence divine” (Three Small Liturgies of the Divine Presence) for sixteen solo strings and eighteen sopranos (Messiaen’s original version), the popular O sacrum convivium! and the extraordinarily difficult Cinq Rechants (Five Refrains) of 1948. Choral conductor Marcus Creed’s contribution is non-pareil.

SCRIABIN SYMPHONY NUMBER 1, POEM OF ECSTASY, Russian National Orchestra, Mikhail Pletnev/PENTATONE SACD PTC5186511  Given that the SACD medium is perfect for accommodating music of the widest possible dynamic range, it is surprising that Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy has had such a limited amount of interest in the surround sound medium. That neglect is remedied with this overwhelming performance, as orgiastic as the composer might have wished. A good case is also made for the composer’s lesser-known First Symphony, which may win new friends in this strong and intelligent performance.

KORNGOLD VIOLIN CONCERTO, VIOLIN SONATA,  Kristóf Baráti violin, Philharmonie Zuidnederland, Otto Tausk conductor Gábor Farkas piano/Brilliant Classics 95006BR  This latest performance of Korngold’s glorious concerto — while not unseating other classic recordings — is more than serviceable. Erich Wolfgang Korngold was a child prodigy (his musical talent was compared to that of the young Mozart) and his early works are written in the tradition of Mahler and Richard Strauss. He later emigrated to America and became one of Hollywood’s most successful film music composers. Korngold’s Violin Concerto is a fascinating and eclectic showpiece, exquisite Mahlerian harmonies alternate with Hollywood sentiment, the violin indulging in soaring melodies and exuberant virtuosic display. The Violin Sonata was written 30 years before the concerto.

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: BURSTS OF ACCLAMATION/ALBION’S VISION, Various artists/ALBCD 021, ALBCD SAMP  These discs – the first, a two-disc collection Vaughan Williams’ organ music and transcriptions, the second a sampler of his lesser-known music are proof (if proof were needed) that the enterprising Albion label continues to do great service for British music and – in particular — that of RVW. Aficionados of the composer will leap on these discs, even if not everything on the organ set, however superbly played by David Briggs, fully convinces. The transcription for organ of The Wasps overture somewhat saps its energy and the dancing quality of the piece, but there are many delights here, not least the astonishing Passacaglia. Albion’s Vision, too, has much to enchant, pieces drawn from previous issues by the company.

SUCHOŇ: BALADICKÁ SUITA, OP. 9 / METAMORFÓZY / SYMFONIETTA RUSTICA. Estonian National Symphony Orchestra// Neeme Järvi. CHANDOS CHAN 10849  How does Chandos do it? How are they still able to come up with neglected orchestral music of great colour and verve? Perhaps one shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth, but just accept with gratitude discs as winning as this. Although his music is rarely performed nowadays, Eugen Suchoň (1908 – 1993) was the most influential and respected Slovak composer of the twentieth century. Three of his greatest symphonic works are performed here by the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra and its artistic director, Neeme Järvi. The works were composed during the years which Suchoň spent in Bratislava, where he turned his interest to the origins of Slovak folk music and to extended tonality. In the four-movement Baladická suita (Balladic Suite), of 1935, Suchoň incorporates some Slovak folk elements and demonstrates his mastery of orchestration in an almost impressionist piece of great power and vitality. Written in 1953, the Metamorfózy (Metamorphoses) reflects the composer’s own impressions during the war years, from a relatively tranquil pre-1939 to more disturbed wartime emotions in the Allegro moderato, the last two movements respectively peaceful and triumphal.

LISZT: SCHUBERT SONG TRANSCRIPTIONS: WINTERREISE (WINTER JOURNEY) SCHWANENGESANG (SWANSONG), Avan Yu, Piano/Naxos  More cherishable rarities from Naxos – with a disc calculated to appeal to lovers of both Liszt and Schubert. Liszt had a particular affection for the music of Schubert whom he considered to be “the most poetic musician who ever lived”. Ordered according to key relationships rather than the narrative content of the verse, his transcriptions of Schubert’s two great song cycles, Winterreise and Schwanengesang are outstanding examples of the genre and formed a popular part of his concert programmes during his years as a travelling virtuoso. Avan Yu, one of Canada’s most exciting pianists, won the Gold Medal at the Canadian Chopin Competition at the age of seventeen

NIELSEN: SYMPHONIES 2 & 6 Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and Sakari Oramo BIS SACD BIS 2128 This is a very welcome release. Indeed, it’s fair to suggest that Oramo’s performances of the complete Nielsen symphonies are among the most recommendable in the current catalogue (particularly for those of us lucky enough to have heard them live) – and possibly the best single set as a complete entity. The final instalment of the Nielsen Symphony cycle with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and Sakari Oramo is released on BIS this month. Symphony No 2 The Four Temperaments, dates from 1901–02 and some 23 years later the composer completed his sixth and final symphony, the Sinfonia semplice (‘Simple Symphony’). In the meantime, the Fourth and Fifth symphonies had brought Nielsen the greatest measure of professional recognition he ever enjoyed in his lifetime.

WEINBERG: SYMPHONIES NOS 5, 10 The Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, Kirill Kondrashin; The Moscow Chamber Orchestra, Rudolf Barshai/Melodiya MEL CD100228   After a drought comes a flood. After the many years in which Weinberg’s remarkable symphonic output languished in obscurity, the positive cornucopia of new issues continues unabated. Weinberg’s vivid style combines elements of Jewish, Polish and Russian musical cultures. Featured here are his Symphonies Nos. 5 and 10 composed during the period of the composer’s most intensive creative activity in the 1960s. The Fifth Symphony was recorded by Kirill Kondrashin in 1975, and the Tenth by Rudolf Barshai in 1970; these two conductors, along with the orchestras they founded respectively, played a significant part in popularizing Weinberg’s works.

PROKOFIEV: SYMPHONY NO. 3, SCYTHIAN SUITE, AUTUMN – SYMPHONIC SKETCH, São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop/NAXOS BLU-RAY AUDIO 30099 00746 If you have neighbours, prepare to upset them when you play this immensely dramatic and colourful reading at the volume it cries out for. This fourth volume in Marin Alsop’s acclaimed Prokofiev symphonic cycle features two of his most viscerally exciting works. Using material salvaged from his opera The Fiery Angel, the Third Symphony was hailed by Serge Koussevitzky at its 1929 première as ‘the best symphony since Tchaikovsky’s Sixth’. Originally commissioned as a ballet by Sergey Diaghilev but rejected as un-danceable, the Scythian Suite has become a popular orchestral showpiece, while Prokofiev retained a lifelong fondness for his dark-hued early symphonic sketch Autumn. Judging by the response to the previous volumes of this fruitful partnership with Marin Alsop and the excellent São Paulo Symphony Orchestra this new release will have no problems in becoming a market leader.

BERNSTEIN: THIRTEEN ANNIVERSARIES, PIANO SONATA, SEVEN ANNIVERSARIES, MUSIC FOR THE DANCE NO. II:• NON TROPPO PRESTO, Alexandre Dossin, Piano/Naxos  Don’t expect the colour and the verve of Bernstein’s more approachable orchestral works; these are largely speaking performances for the cognoscenti, including several world première recordings. Known for his large-scale compositions, Leonard Bernstein also wrote for his own instrument, the piano. The sequence of four Anniversaries, published between 1944 and 1989, are brief, deftly evocative vignettes written to celebrate his many friends, colleagues and family members. The early Piano Sonata is imbued with youthful self-confidence, and explores certain compositional techniques to which he was to return in more mature works. The rhythmically incisive Music for the Dance No. II is another important early work.

WHITESIDE: DICHROIC LIGHT, Whiteside IMBT 001 Matthew Whiteside received a Quality Production award from Creative Scotland to compose a new work for viola d’amore, live electronics and motion sensor and to record an album of his music. ‘Dichroic Light’ features collaborations with clarinettist Joanna Nicholson, performances by Scotland’s contemporary music ensemble Red Note and the premiere of a new work for viola d’amore, live electronics and motion sensor. Whiteside’s work has been performed internationally at Salem Artworks in New York, Dublin’s National Concert Hall, Glasgow City Halls and the Belfast International Festival at Queen’s. Dichroic Light builds an enveloping soundscape of the calm drone-like quality of the cello and the players own voice; on Ulation the composer uses electronics to extend the sonic world of the viola.

SIBELIUS: PIANO WORKS #1 Joseph Tong/Quartz LC28888  Sibelius’ neglected and elusive piano music is often considered to be a closed book, even to the composer’s admirers, but Joseph Tong’s poetic approach may change listener’s minds.

HERRMANN: OBSESSION, City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, Nic Raine/Tadlow Music Tadlow 019 CD & Blu-Ray Audio  For some considerable time, the producer James Fitzpatrick has been putting collectors of the finest orchestral film scores in his debt with a continuing program of new recordings from the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra under the estimable conductor Nic Raine. For a time, it seemed as if the dynamic recording of the complete score for Franz Waxman’s Taras Bulba was the high water mark of the company, but this issue, enshrining a complete performance of one of the last film scores by Bernard Herrmann, is something special. Why? The reasons are principally sonic: the first disc in this two-disc set is a CD version of the score, impressive enough in its own way, but paling in comparison to the amazing dynamic range of the accompanying disc which is in the Blu-ray audio media — and showcases the massive dynamic range of Herrmann’s score, notably its ground-shaking organ passages in the fullest possible sound picture. If this is anything to go by, one can hope that for all future Tadlow Music issues, the company utilises Blu-ray audio.

HERRMANN, GERSHWIN, WAXMAN, COPLAND Nash Ensemble Hyperion CDA 68094 More Bernard Herrmann, but this time of a more intimate nature: his charming and melancholic Souvenir de Voyage, the centrepiece of a subtle collection of small-scale works by composers (Gershwin apart), better known for their film scores. All the music here is dispatched with a combination of nuanced feeling and perfect attention to the colour of the restricted sound palette.

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BIZET: CARMEN, Soloists, Leonard Bernstein/ PENTATONE SACD5186 216 (2)  When Leonard Bernstein’s recording of Bizet’s Carmen first appeared on LP in1973 it won a Grammy and sold over 100,000 copies as well as marking the start of Bernstein’s relationship with Deutsche Grammophon, one that lasted right up to his death in1990. Thanks to this superb SACD re-mastering by PENTATONE of the original DGG quadraphonic tapes, the qualities of Bernstein’s striking, if controversial version, of Bizet’s opera can be assessed as never before. This recording was made at sessions in the Metropolitan Opera House, New York in September 1972, during a run of performances of a new production of Carmen conceived by Bernstein and Göran Gentile, the Met’s new general manager, who sadly was killed in a car crash before the production opened. It uses an appropriate amount of the spoken dialogue of the Fritz Oeser edition rather than the sung recitatives of the Guiraud edition heard on many earlier versions and, in spite of some less than idiomatic French accents from the singers, this works well. Like many Bernstein recordings this one has its controversial aspects, the conductor’s choices of tempo being the most obvious. For example, the opening Prelude is taken at a very deliberate pace and elsewhere some unusually steady tempi, as well as fast ones, will surprise many listeners, but Bernstein’s compelling exposition of the tragic drama is so persuasive that one quickly gets used to these idiosyncrasies. The cast is a strong one, crowned by Marilyn Horne’s impressively sung portrayal of the heroine. Her rich singing is both seductive and powerful, yet she never sacrifices beauty of tone for theatrical effect and gives a fully rounded characterisation of the part. James McCracken is a virile sounding Don José and though his drift into falsetto voice at the end of the Flower Song sounds frankly bizarre elsewhere he sings with much sensitivity. Adriana Maliponte is a touching Micaëla with a lovely soaring vocal quality and Tom Krause provides a forthright and firmly sung Escamillo. The many smaller roles are also generally well cast. The singing of the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus is enthusiastic as is that of the Manhattan Opera Chorus (a replacement for the Metropolitan Opera chorus who had demanded higher payments for their services) trained by John Mauceri. The incisive playing of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra is simply magnificent, its quality shining through in every bar, and the way it responds to Bernstein’s direction clearly indicates the rapport the conductor established with the musicians during the course of the staged run. The gorgeous Entr’acte before Act 3 illustrates the point perfectly. As an opera Carmen is action packed, and the DGG engineering team made full use of the possibilities offered by multi-channel sound to re-create the drama in purely aural terms. Off-stage effects – choruses, trumpet fanfares and the like – are brilliantly realised using the 4.0 channels most imaginatively. The sound throughout is pristine, with excellent balances between voices and orchestra – a tribute to the fine engineering of Günter Hermanns. The two well filled discs ( CD1 79’25”, CD2 80’35”) are handsomely presented in a hard-backed book with the full libretto in French and English. Lovers of Bizet’s Carmen have a bewildering selection of recordings from which to choose, but Bernstein’s uniquely haunting and individual conception should be heard in this outstanding re-incarnation of a classic set. A remarkably rejuvenated and most welcome re-issue of a unique opera recording from 40 years ago.

SZYMANOWSKI: VIOLIN CONCERTO NO. 1, ETC., Rosanne Philippens, NJO, Xian Zhang/Channel Classics SACD CCSSA36715 Nowadays Szymanowski’s luscious 1st Violin Concerto is appearing ever more frequently on disc thanks both to the public’s greater appreciation of this composer’s music and to the advocacy of many star violinists of the younger generation. This latest recording from the prodigiously talented Dutch violinist Rosanne Philippens is certainly amongst the finest that I have heard. In the Concerto she is accompanied by the NJO (National Jeugd Orkest) which is the Netherlands Youth Orchestra for players under 30 years of age. They are directed by the charismatic and dynamic conductor Xian Zhang who elicits passionate and supremely confident playing from her committed orchestra. Unlike some recordings of this work the violin is not spotlit so the many fine solos from members of the NJO can be fully appreciated. The huge tuttis have a sumptuousness appropriate to the composer’s ecstatic writing and here the orchestra’s horn section deserve special mention for their burnished tonal glow. Szymanowski wrote a number of works for violin and piano that span his entire career, and two of these – ‘Myths’ Op 30 and ‘Nocturne and Tarantella’ Op 28 – are given dazzling performances that perhaps even more than the concerto show the quality of Rosanne Philippens superb musicianship. In these works she is accompanied by the pianist Julien Quentin whose alert and sensitive playing is in perfect accord with that of his partner. The three movements of ‘Myths’ – ‘The Fountain of Arethusa’, ‘Narcissus’ and ‘Dryads and Pan’ – reflect Szymanowski’s interest in Classical mythology and each place formidable technical challenges for the players that are met in full by Philippens and Quentin. The ‘Nocturne and Tarantella’ that, like Myths, was written in 1915, is delivered with tremendous attack and rhythmic verve; both performers driving the music with a controlled virtuosity that leaves one breathless. The disc also includes a transcription of the ‘Song of Roxanne’ from the second Act of Szymanowski’s opera King Roger made by the composer and his friend the violinist Pawel KochaÅ„ski. Rosanne Philippens and her partner brings a wonderful stillness and mysterious sensuality to her performance of this haunting piece.  The three Stravinsky pieces included in this generously filled SACD can best be considered as delightful encores to the main Szymanowski programme. The ‘Chanson Russe’, Stravinsky’s own arrangement of an aria from his comic opera ‘Mavra’ is played with affectionate warmth and delicacy while the transcriptions of the Berceuse and Scherzo from ‘The Firebird’ confirm both the poise and exuberance that these consummate musicians bring to their performances. I do, however, think that the sleeve note writer Clemens Romijn is clutching at straws trying to make links between these two composers, and I would certainly question his view of the main work as ‘the Violin Concerto Mahler never wrote’. The Concerto was recorded (August 2014) in the spacious acoustic of the Muziekgebouw, Amsterdam and the rest (September 2014) in the more intimate Muziekcentrum, Eindhoven. In both venues Jared Sacks’s engineering of the 5.0 DSD recording is exemplary. Enthusiastically recommended.

XENAKIS: PLÉÏADES, REBONDS, Uniko, percussionist/LINN SACD CKD 495  For her third release on the Linn label, entitled Xenakis IX, the virtuoso percussionist KUNIKO turns to two of the most inventive and challenging works of the Greek-French avant-garde composer Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001). ‘Pléïades’ was composed in 1978 and premiered by the six members of Les Percussions de Strabourg. It has four movements of roughly equal length and lasts, in KUNIKO’s performance, 45 minutes. The titles of each of the movements – Mélanges (Mixtures), Métaux (Metals), Claviers (Keyboard) and Peaux (Skins) – indicate the type of instruments used and hence the differing tonal colours produced. The work also uses an instrument named the SIXXEN made up of metal bars with irregularly distributed pitches. KUNIKO herself selected 120 steel square tubes to produce the sonorities she wanted to achieve from six of these instruments in ‘Métaux’. Xenakis suggested two possible orders for performance with ‘Mélanges’ placed either first or last. KUNIKO has chosen the former, that allows the listener to experience the full kaleidoscopic percussion panoply before the instrumental groups separate for the subsequent movements. Her thrilling performance of this remarkable piece is astonishingly confident and absolutely hypnotic. ‘Rebonds’, composed between 1987 and 1989, was written for the respected percussionist Sylvio Gualda whose complimentary note to KUNIKO is reproduced in the liner notes with this SACD. The work is in two parts simply labelled A and B that can be performed in any order. Part A uses only skinned instruments – bongos, tom-toms and bass drums – while Part B adds a set of 5 wood blocks and a tumba to the instrumental line-up. KUNIKO makes light of the mathematical and rhythmic complexities of Xenakis’s compositional technique in her authoritative performance of this work. The recordings (24-bit / 192kHz) were made in the fine acoustic of Lake Sagami Hall, Kanagawa, Japan at dates between December 2013 and October 2014 by engineers Kazuya Nagae and Yuji Sagae and the sound quality is superb whether one is playing the disc on a stereo or multi-channel set-up. The latter, however, makes maximum use of the surround speakers for the various instrumental groups thus adding to the excitement of the whole listening experience. Excellent notes by KUNIKO complete this most recommendable issue.

JOPLIN: TREEMONISHA, Soloists, Houston Grand Opera, Gunther Schuller/PENTATONE SACD 5186 221 (2)  For many the music of Scott Joplin (1868-1917) will be associated with his numerous ragtime compositions, including ‘The Entertainer’, that were used in the 1973 film ‘The Sting’ starring Robert Redford and Paul Newman. However, Joplin, who as a child was introduced to the works of Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin by his piano teacher Julius Weiss, had more serious ambitions than to write merely syncopated ragtime music. He wrote two operas and a ballet but only his second opera ‘Treemonisha’ has survived. It received a single unstaged public performance in 1915 in Harlem just two years before Joplin’s early death from syphilis. Thanks to the efforts of the composer and conductor Gunther Schuller who sympathetically orchestrated and arranged the music from the piano score, in what was obviously a labour of love, the work was successfully staged in 1975 by the Houston Grand Opera in Houston,Texas and later it transferred to Broadway. It is this production recorded at RCA Studio A, New York in October 1975 that is the basis for this splendid recording, one that wears its years lightly, conducted by Schuller. The plot tells the story of Treemonisha, a foundling discovered under a tree who, thanks to her adoptive parents Ned and Monisha, is taught to read, write and do arithmetic by a white woman. She then attempts to lead her community against conjurers who prey on their belief in sorcery and superstition. Treemonisha is abducted and is about to be thrown into a wasps’ nest when she is rescued in the nick of time by her friend Remus. The community accept the forces of right (education) over those of wrong (superstition) before electing her as their leader. Touchingly naïve though the story may be it surely has deep resonances for our time. Treemonisha is not a ragtime opera as Joplin himself was at pains to point out, though it does have a number of ragtime elements in such catchy sections as “We’re goin around” and “Aunt Dinah has blowed de horn”. The music is unfailingly melodic and often sentimental suggesting the milieu of a light 19th century opera. The cast is a generally strong one with fine singing from Carmen Balthrop in the title role. Edward Pierson delivers a sonorous Parson Alltalk and a 29 year-old Willard White as Ned makes the most of his big aria “ When villains ramble far and near”. The original slightly dry studio recording has been transformed on this PENTATONE reissue of the 4.0 quadraphonic tapes in a way that really bring this work to life. The surround channels are used as much as the front ones. Singers often appear from the rear and sides as do the various chorus groups while the orchestra always remains at the front. This imaginative use of surround sound enhances the whole production and is a tribute to the fine engineering of Günter Hermanns, the doyen of Deutsche Grammophon engineers. The two SACDs are handsomely packaged in a hard backed book that includes the full English libretto and notes on the opera. Most definitely recommended.

 

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MONTAGE: GREAT FILM COMPOSERS AND THE PIANO: MUSIC BYJOHN WILLIAMS, ALEXANDRE DESPLAT, RANDY NEWMAN, etc. Gloria Cheng, piano/ Harmonia Mundi B00QB4MRFA  This reviewer last met the film composer John Williams at a performance by Andre Previn of Williams’ First Symphony, which he has since withdrawn. I’ve always found that a source of regret, as it struck me as a closely argued and impressive piece in Waltonian vein. The composer’s other serious works are — largely speaking — a world away from the instant dramatic appeal of such scores as Superman, as is evidenced from the knotty rather uncommunicative piece to be found on this disc played by Grammy-award winning pianist Gloria Cheng. Nevertheless, the collection proves that all the composers involved have much more in their compositional armoury than the film work we know them best for. But it’s not a particularly ingratiating disc.

PUCCINI: TURANDOT, Sutherland, Pavarotti, Zubin Mehta/ Decca Blu-ray Audio 478 7815DH3  After the astonishing achievement by Decca in condensing the complete Solti Ring onto one (one!) Blu-ray audiodisc, a similar process has been utilised for the company’s classic recording of Puccini’s final masterpiece Turandot, admittedly a less daunting task than fourteen hours of Wagner. But there are strong parallels: once again, this is the nearest to a nigh-definitive performance of the opera as one is likely to encounter with Pavarotti and Sutherland at their absolute peaks, and the reprocessing of the sound is quite as impressive as the Solti set. It is truly heartening to see these classic opera performances making second appearances in the Blu-ray audio format, sounding better than they ever did in their heyday.

CASTELNUOVO-TEDESCO: CONCERTO ITALIANO, etc., Tianwa Yang SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden Baden und Freiburg, Pieter-Jelle de Boer/Naxos Almost single-handedly, the Naxos label has rescued the composer Castelnuovo-Tedesco from obscurity in terms of recorded repertoire. There was a time when the composer’s charming guitar concertos were all that was available, but now we can see that he was a musician of considerable range, thanks to the Naxos program. If the Concerto Italiano is not as immediately appealing as the Shakespearean overtures recorded elsewhere, it is still a piece full of the colour and invention  we now expect from the composer, and it is performed with suitable affection here. Castelnuovo-Tedesco considered the 1924 Concerto Italiano to be his first truly symphonic venture. This tuneful, fresh and transparently scored concerto receives its world première recording from violinist Tianwa Yang, supported by the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden Baden und Freiburg under Pieter-Jelle de Boer.

TCHAIKOVSKY: SERENADE/SHOSTAKOVICH: QUARTET NO. 2 ARRANGED FOR STRING ORCHESTRA, Scottish Ensemble; Jonathan Morton/Linn SACD/CD CKD 472  In the early days of the super audio CD medium, aficionados were hungry for favourite works to be given the deluxe treatment in the best possible sound, but the measure of how far we can come (despite the supposedly parlous nature of the medium) is the fact that we can now choose between different interpretations of the same works in splendid SACD sound. Here is a sterling example: while both of these pieces have enjoyed recommendable interpretations before, this particular coupling – performed with suitable panache – allows the listener to compare two great Russian masters from different eras. Under the directorship of Jonathan Morton, Scottish Ensemble adds the Tchaikovsky Serenade, regarded by the composer as one of his finest works, to its impressive Linn discography. The piece is imbued with the classical spirit of Mozart, but with Tchaikovsky’s style to the fore. This recording also marks the premiere of Jonathan Morton’s 2013 transcription of Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 2, not quite as incisive as the Amsterdam Sinfonietta, but still immensely musical.

NIELSEN: SYMPHONIES 5 & 6., New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert/DACAPO SACD While this reviewer is more inclined towards the recent SACD cycles of Nielsen symphonies by Sakari Oramo and the late Colin Davis, there are many advocates for the concurrent cycle conducted by Alan Gilbert. On DACAPO, the final issue in the acclaimed cycle of the symphonies from the New York Philharmonic and Alan Gilbert is impressive. Recorded live in Avery Fisher Hall in October 2014, this SACD presents the Danish national composer’s last two symphonies, Nos. 5 and 6, the latter of which had never previously been performed by the orchestra. Alan Gilbert states that both works represent ‘the battle between good and evil, and are profound, dramatic works by a mature composer who knew that his days were numbered’..

ENESCU: SYMPHONY NO.1, etc., Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra, Hannu Lintu/Ondine  Ondine finally releases the much-anticipated conclusion of their George Enescu (1881–1955) symphony cycle from the Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra and the dynamic Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu. The disc includes two neglected masterworks: the First Symphony, filled with youthful energy, and the poetic and lyric Symphonie concertante for Cello and Orchestra. The soloist is the award-winning cellist Truls Mørk. A bracing conclusion to a splendid cycle.

THE CLASSIC FILM SCORES OF FRANZ WAXMAN, National Philharmonic Orchestra, Charles Gerhardt /HDTT Blu-ray Audio HDBD423  This is a fascinating experiment which, while not entirely successful displays some distinct possibilities. Utilising the Blu-ray audio medium in a very creative fashion, the original tapes for these dynamic and colourful Franz Waxman scores have been mastered from Quad tapes so that this is a genuine multichannel experience, presenting these scores (with their rattling percussion and exhilarating brass writing) in a sonic experience quite different from that presented by the LP which many of us have known for years. But the caveat is that the echo in the multichannel experience is slightly out of sync, which gives the impression of hearing the pieces in a large cathedral; there is also a loss of some treble compared to the original CD. Nevertheless, it is an experiment to be encouraged, and further issues may present more opportunities.

STRAVINSKY: THE FIREBIRD Kirov orchestra, Valery Gergiev/ Euro Arts Blu-ray 2061084  This is a highly creative interpretation of Stravinsky’s groundbreaking piece which does far more than simply record the ballet from the proscenium arch; it’s a genuine film with all the apparatus of cinema utilised to create fascinating effects (The Firebird, for instance, actually flies, looking rather like a superhero). It goes without saying that Valery Gergiev has the measure of the Stravinsky score while the choreography by James Kudelka and the direction by Barbara Willis Sweete is completely at the service of the material.

WISEMAN: WOLF HALL, Locrian Ensemble of London, Debbie Wiseman/ Silva Screen SI LCD 1472  In an era of dumbed-down television, Wolf Hall was a shining beacon of intelligence, with Hilary Mantel’s novels treated in an unhurried but intensely dramatic fashion that demanded concentration on the part of the viewer (those not prepared to give such intention could switch channels to brain-dead reality or celebrity shows). And one aspect of the show’s success was much remarked upon, the superbly understated score by Debbie Weisman performed by the Locrian Ensemble of London. And this welcome CD is the perfect opportunity to examine that score in isolation; like the best film scores, it functions perfectly well on its own – it is a particularly egregious canard that film music only functions well within the context of the film.

SAINT-SAËNS SYMPHONIES 1 & 2, Malmö Symphony Orchestra, Martin Fröst/Naxos  While Saint-Saëns’ Third Symphony (with its dramatic sections for organ) has always enjoyed a great deal of recorded attention, the earlier symphonies have been less well served, although they have had a fitful on hold the repertoire. No one would suggest that they were in the same category musically as the Third, but these performances make a very strong case for them. The Malmö Symphony Orchestra has a distinguished track record of Naxos recordings, and with this new release they embark on a series of the Saint-Saëns symphonies. Complete Saint-Saëns symphony cycles are rare, the only readily available version is the venerable 1970s set conducted by Jean Martinon. The prospect of this new three volume set, richly embellished with other orchestral works and conducted by acknowledged French music expert Marc Soustrot, will provide a welcome alternative.

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THE ARGENTINIAN ALBUM, Amsterdam Sinfonietta, Candida Thomson/SACD Channel Classics CCS SA 33014 Adventurous programming and scintillating playing are just two elements of this thrilling SACD from Candida Thomson and the prodigiously talented players of the Amsterdam Sinfonietta. ‘The Argentinian Album’ features works by three 20th century Argentinian composers – Astor Piazzolla, Alberto Ginastera and Osvaldo Golijov. Piazzolla’s ‘Cuatro Estaciónes Porteñas, also known as the ‘Four Seasons of Buenos Aires’, are a set of four tango based compositions written between 1965 and 1970 that were originally envisaged as separate compositions rather than one suite. The composer’s potent blend of Argentinan tango, jazz and classical music has immediate appeal, and the work has received a number of recordings in recent years. In fact, it has already appeared from Channel Classics on Rick Stotijn’s album ‘Basso Bailando’ in an arrangement by Marijn van Prooijen, but here it is presented in the more familiar arrangement made in the 1990s by Leonid Desyatnikov that links it to Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ by inclusion of both playful quotes from that ubiquitous work as well as elements of the baroque concerto grosso. Candida Thomson and her marvellous players bring a heady mixture of sultriness, visceral excitement and panache to these exciting pieces. For a number of years Piazzolla studied with Alberto Ginastera – following his introduction in 1941 to the slightly older contemporary composer by the pianist Arthur Rubinstein (not Anton Rubinstein as stated in the liner notes by Willem de Bordes). Ginastera is probably best known for his exciting ballet scores ‘Estancia’ and ‘Panambi’, but his impressive ‘Concerto for String Orchestra’ dating from 1965 and based on his earlier 2nd String Quartet  is a wonderful addition to the SACD catalogue, particularly when performed with such fierce commitment as here. The opening movement is a set of variations on a theme whose sinuous melody is ruminated on by each of the string section principals and interrupted by violent outbursts from the main string body. An aptly titled ‘Scherzo fantastico’ that follows includes all manner of intriguing instrumental effects and considerable challenges for the players throughout its brief and ghostly span.  An intense and disquieting slow movement highlights the sensitivity and unanimity displayed by these performers, while the ‘Finale Furioso’, that begins like a swarm of angry bees, demonstrates their amazing virtuosity. ‘Last Round’,Osvaldo Golijov’s tribute to Piazzolla, is a nonet written for a double string quartet and  double bass. The composer’s own account of the form and genesis of this deeply felt 14 minute piece describes it perfectly. “The title is borrowed from a short story on boxing by Julio Cortázar, the metaphor for an imaginary chance for Piazzolla’s spirit to fight one more time (he used to get into fistfights throughout his life). The piece is conceived as an idealized bandoneon.  The first movement represents the act of a violent compression of the instrument and the second a final, seemingly endless opening sigh (it is actually a fantasy over the refrain of the song ‘My Beloved Buenos Aires’, composed by the legendary Carlos Gardel in the 1930’s). But ‘Last Round’ is also a sublimated tango dance. Two quartets confront each other, separated by the focal bass, with violins and violas standing up as in the traditional tango orchestras. The bows fly in the air as inverted legs in criss-crossed choreography, always attracting and repelling each other, always in danger of clashing, always avoiding it with the immutability that can only be acquired by transforming hot passion into pure pattern.” The Piazzolla and Golijov pieces were recorded in April 2014 in the Stadsgehoorzaaal, Leiden while the recording of the Ginastera ‘Concerto for Strings’ took place in the Bachzaal, Amsterdam some six years earlier. Irrespective of location, the sound quality of Jared Sacks’s 5.0 DSD production is all that one could wish for. There is an almost holographic realism to it that does full justice both to the music, the artistry of Candida Thomson and the musicians of the Amsterdam Sinfonietta.

MENDELSSOHN: CALM SEA AND PROSPEROUS VOYAGE / SYMPHONY NO. 2 ‘HYMN OF PRAISE’* Mary Bevan (soprano I)* / Sophie Bevan (soprano II)* / Benjamin Hewlett (tenor)* / CBSO Chorus*/ City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Edward Gardner. Chandos SACD CHSA 5151  Edward Gardner’s fine survey of the Mendelssohn Symphonies reaches its conclusion with this impressive  performance of the Symphony No. 2 ‘Hymn of Praise’ that, in order of composition, is the composer’s penultimate symphony. As with the two earlier issues the coupling is a Mendelssohn Overture, in this case ‘Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage’. Gardner and the CBSO give a lovely account of this entrancing overture conveying the tranquillity and stillness of the composer’s opening seascape with the utmost sensitivity. The sudden change of mood to one of elation, heralded by the woodwind, is perfectly judged, and the vigour with which the conductor drives the piece to its joyful conclusion is most exhilarating. The two sections of the overture are assigned separate tracks on this disc. Mendelssohn aptly designated his 2nd Symphony a  ‘Symphony-Cantata’, and the purely orchestral three-movement Sinfonia that opens the work contains some of the composer’s finest writing. Gardner’s propulsive approach is again evident here, though it never sounds rushed and allows for much felicitous playing from the CBSO.  At this point it should be noted that as this Chandos series is entitled ‘Mendelssohn in Birmingham’ the cantata section of the symphony is sung in English, not German, in the rather free translation by J Alfred Novello (1810-1896)  –  so definitely ‘Hymn of Praise’ not ‘Lobgesang’. The solo soprano parts are sung by the sisters Sophie and Mary Bevan. The former sounds rather forced in ‘Praise thou the Lord, O my spirit’ (Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele) and it is delivered with surprisingly poor diction, but the duet with her sister ‘I waited for the Lord’ (Ich harrete des Herrn) is clear and mellifluous. The sweet-voiced tenor soloist Benjamin Hulett is really excellent. His enunciation could hardly be bettered whilst his considerable operatic experience allows him to make the most of the dramatic recitatives and cries of ‘Watchman will the night soon pass?’ (Hütter ist die Nacht bald hin?). His duet with Sophie Bevan is a further example of the elegance of his singing. The excellent CBSO chorus trained by Julian Wilkins sing with commendable attack and enthusiasm though occasionally the clarity of their words is compromised  by the acoustic. Wilkins also plays the impressively room-shaking organ that makes its appearance in the latter sections of the symphony. The recordings were made in the ample and pleasingly reverberant acoustic of Birmingham Town Hall (February 2014) by the reliable team of Brian Pidgeon (producer) and Ralph Couzens (engineer) who have balanced orchestra, soloists and chorus with remarkable skill. The sound is clean with vivid winds and crisp timpani, though the acoustic of the venue possibly renders the strings in a less favourable light when playing forte or above. There is an ample choice of recorded versions of the Symphony on disc to suit all tastes including, at the time of writing, eight on SACD; but those who have acquired the first two volumes in Gardner’s Mendelssohn series will be more than satisfied with this one. Recommended.

BRAHMS: MOTETS, Swedish Radio Choir, Peter Dijkstra/Channel Classics SACD CCS SA 27108  The familiarity of Brahms’s symphonic, chamber and piano music both on disc and in the concert hall means that, apart from ‘Ein Deutsches Requiem’ or the ‘Alto Rhapsody’, we very seldom hear live performances of his other works for choir and orchestra that include ‘Nanie’, ‘Gesang der Parzen’ or the ‘Shicksalslied’. Of even greater rarity are his motets written for unaccompanied chorus and composed when the mature Brahms was at the height of his powers. For their latest release on Channel Classics Peter Dijkstra and his peerless Swedish Radio Choir bring together all of Brahms’s motets for mixed voice choir. These ten motets, that span the years from 1864 and 1890, were written in four groups – Zwei Motetten Op.29 (1856-1860), Zwei Motetten Op74 (1877),  Fest und Gedenkensprüche Op.109 (1888-89) and the Drei Motetten Op110 (1889) . In addition the disc also includes a performance of the ‘Missa Canonica’ Opus posth. of which Brahms only completed three movements. These motets clearly indicate the depth to which Brahms had studied the old masters, especially Schütz, Gabrieli and Bach on whose music they are closely modelled in their external formal characteristics – the use of the canon, the chorale fugue and the like – and they also show how deeply Brahms’s Lutheran upbringing in Hamburg had provided him with an understanding of the Bible and the ability to choose appropriate texts for different purposes. The Swedish Radio Choir is an ideal size for this music, with voices that are perfectly blended throughout the vocal ranges.  The precision of their attack and marvellous control of dynamics is stunning – something easily illustrated by the firmness of the cry ‘Warum’ at the very start of the two Opus 74 motets. It need hardly be said that intonation is spot on and the complexities of Brahms’s contrapuntal writing and chromaticism, particularly in Op.109 and 110, are handled effortlessly.  The supreme accuracy of the singing is never at the expense of the expressive delivery of the words and though the voices always cohere as one body, the personalities of the individual members of the choir are not subsumed. The motets were recorded in September 2013 in the Engelbrekt’s Church, Stockholm –  a venue whose acoustic provides just the right amount of reverberation while still allowing absolute clarity of the vocal lines. Jared Sacks’s 5.0 DSD recording recreates the warm ambience of this church with startling realism. Text are only given in German in the booklet notes but the diction of these singers is so beautifully clear that reference to the words printed in the liner notes is hardly necessary. Those requiring translations can refer directly to the Holy Bible or can find them at www.recmusic.org. A wonderful disc that all lovers of the music of Brahms will surely wish to add to their collections.

 

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WAGNER: DER RING DES NIBELUNGEN Nilsson, Windgassen et al, Vienna Philharmonic, Georg Solti/Decca Blu-Ray Audio 478 6748  In the long history of recorded music, there are very few recordings can be claimed as the greatest achievement of the medium. But even non-Wagnerians are prepared to acknowledge that Solti’s Ring – the first compete stereo recording –may be the summit of the art. Most of the of those who possessed that bulky but impressive LP boxed set as the centrepiece of their classical collection will have replaced it with various CD upgrades over the years, and may have been slightly wary of the much-trumpeted new single disc Blu-ray audio issue which – amazingly – compresses the entire 14 hours of the cycle onto a single disc. It now arrives in a more compact package: a handsome box with complete libretti, and everything you have heard about it is true. It is – let’s not mince words – a quite amazing achievement. The sound quality is so clear and wide-ranging that the operas sound as if they were recording yesterday; what’s more, noise reduction techniques have left the upper register clear and pellucid while taking out any inherent hiss. It is completely unnecessary to rehearse the merits of this set (or the handful of qualifications), Wagner’s magnum opus in the Solti/John Culshaw reading is simply de rigueur. If one has a single caveat, it is regarding the lack of documentation, which fails to point out the fact that each individual opera has been allocated (for access) its own button on the Blu-ray control: red, yellow, green and blue bring up Das Rheingold etc. separately. It took me a while to figure this out, but perhaps this was an intelligence test that I failed. Nevertheless, this set is quite simply an unsurpassed achievement, and having it on a single disc is a justification for modern advances in Blu-ray audio technology.

WALTON: SYMPHONY NO. 2 / CELLO CONCERTO* / IMPROVISATIONS ON AN IMPROMPTU OF BENJAMIN BRITTEN, Paul Watkins (cello)* / BBC Symphony Orchestra / Edward Gardner/CHANDOS CHSA 5153  Several decades ago, this writer would ask (at intervals) the conductor Andre Previn how Walton’s 3rd Symphony was progressing ; the composer (living in his idyllic Capri garden retreat) had tentatively promised that he would provide a successor to the sardonic Second, but as Previn ruefully admitted to me, it would probably never be written. Which is a shame, as the two existing symphonies are so different; perhaps the massive Sibelian First and its more compact successor might have been set off in an appropriate fashion by a third symphony. The second has never quite enjoyed the acclaim it clearly deserves (not even when Previn set down an impressive account for EMI), but Edward Gardner’s highly impressive new disc (in which he conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra) is a worthy successor to his much-acclaimed recording of the composer’s Symphony No. 1 and Violin Concerto, a notable bestseller for Chandos. Gardner’s clear sympathy for the music is luminous in every bar. Unlike the recent BIS/Hughes recording, the Chandos engineers have set the prominent piano part some distance back in the orchestral mix, which those who have enjoyed this piquant detail of orchestration may find disappointing. But everything else about this performance is exemplary, with Gardner coaxing out every nuance of the music and its nervous electric energy. Walton’s Second and final Symphony was commissioned for the 750th anniversary, in 1957 – 58, of the founding of the city of Liverpool, but, delayed by the composition of the Cello Concerto. It was only premiered in 1960. It is scored for a large orchestra, utilising as a model as the Third Symphony of Albert Roussel, in its concision and the use of the key of G minor. The Cello Concerto, brilliantly played here, was premiered in London in 1957 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra itself. The last piece on this winning SACD has an improvisatory nature, and is based on the ‘Impromptu’ of Benjamin Britten’s Piano Concerto.

MAHLER: SYMPHONY NUMBER 5/SYMPHONY NUMBER 9, Gewandhuas Orchester/Riccardo Chailly/ACCENTUS BLU-RAY ACC 12O284/ACC 10299  Riccardo Chailly’s Mahler has long been one of the great glories of modern recording, channelling the drama and insight of the great conductors of the past (from Bruno Walter to Leonard Bernstein) but enshrining his performances in recordings that make his predecessor’s discs sound positively antediluvian in terms of recorded sound. Vying for the upper echelons of the audiophile market now are Blu-ray audio discs, as these two impressive performances from Accentus presented on Blu-ray, as opposed to the SACD format with which they are increasingly coexisting. And in terms of sheer sonic splendour (leaving aside the felicities of the performances), these are among the most wide-ranging and exhilarating since the classic Michael Tilson Thomas performances from San Francisco. Of the two symphonies, Chailly manages an impeccable balance of sensitivity and dynamism in the Fifth, while the adagietto is limpidly beautiful, even allowing the listener to forget just how hackneyed this piece has become. It perhaps does not quite find the final ounce of tragic grander in the monumental slow movements of the 9th Symphony, the performance is still among the best that this much-recorded piece has enjoyed in recent years. If you possess a Blu-ray machine and a decent speaker setup I have three words of advice: do not hesitate.

WEINBERG: CHAMBER SYMPHONY NO. 3, OP. 151 / CHAMBER SYMPHONY NO. 4, OP 153. Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra / Thord Svedlund/CHANDOS CHSA 5146  Those who remember some impressive Melodiya discs of Weinberg symphonies (when he went under the de-Semitised name of Vaignberg) will be celebrating the positive avalanche of new recordings of his music, and this new disc is one of the most intriguing. The ongoing SACD series of orchestral works by Weinberg now explores some lesser-known, late works of the composer. This disc features the last two Chamber Symphonies, which reflect a largely hidden, yet still busy period for the composer. The Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra, recording with Chandos for the first time, is conducted by the able Thord Svedlund. The Chamber Symphony No. 4 is among the last music that Weinberg completed, and has a valedictory air, suggesting his unhappy final years, It is a piece of immense feeling. The Chamber Symphony No. 3 is aligned with the fifth String Quartet No. 5, Op. 27 and is yet another neglected Weinberg masterpiece.

RICHARD STRAUSS: FEUERSNOT Markus Eiche, Lars Woldt, Simone Schneider, Wilhelm Schwinghammer, Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Kinderchor des Staatstheaters am Gärtnerplatz, Münchner Rundfunkorchester, Ulf Schirmer/CPO 777920-2  A very welcome issue for one of Richard Strauss’s most neglected operas; this is a set which makes a strong case for the piece. Just after the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth, CPO’s concert performance of Feuersnot reveals Strauss’s riff on Wagner as something of a hidden gem, with Ulf Schirmer and his cast nailing the opera’s quirky mix of homage and parody.

SIBELIUS: SYMPHONIES 2 & 7 BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Thomas Sondergard/LINN CKD462  Perfectly serviceable performances of these two very different Sibelius symphonies, but it’s hard to judge the readings objectively, given the decision to record the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in a rather non-analytic acoustic. Sibelius’s master of orchestration certainly makes its mark, but some incidental detail remains opaque, and that is not helpful in the case of this glorious music. For those who do not possess (for instance); the complete SACD set of Sibelius symphonies on DG by Järvi – also, it has to be observed not without its problems — this might be a competitive issue, but one hopes that more incisive readings and a more wide-ranging recording will accompany future issues and resources.

SAINT-SAËNS: SYMPHONY NO. 3 IN C MINOR, ETC., Orchestre National de Lyon, Vincent Warnier/Naxos Blu-ray Audio NBD0045 Blu-ray audio continues to make its mark with yet another stunningly recorded disc, and this Saint-Saëns collection was recorded to celebrate the inauguration of the newly restored former organ of the Palais du Trocadéro and Palais de Chaillot in Paris. The Orchestre National de Lyon and their organist-in-residence, Vincent Warnier, present two major works for organ and orchestra by Camille Saint-Saëns, both of which are historically linked with the great Cavaillé-Coll organs. Saint-Saëns’ inclusion of organ and piano in his Symphony No. 3 in C minor was unprecedented at the time, and is a spectacular example of music both resplendent and grandiose. This is coupled here with the rare and poignant Cyprès et Lauriers, under the baton of Leonard Slatkin.

PETRASSI: CORO DI MORTI* / QUATTRO INNI SACRI† / PARTITA / NOCHE OSCURA* Giorgio Berrugi (tenor)† /Vasily Ladyuk (baritone)† / Coro Teatro Regio Torino* Orchestra Teatro Regio Torino / Gianandrea Noseda/ CHAN 10840  when will it end? When will the enterprising recording company Chandos run out of neglected composers for new advocacy? Not for some time, if this collectable disc is anything to go by. This new Petrassi recording with Gianandrea Noseda and his Italian forces is part of the company’s ongoing Italian music series. As with Noche oscura and Quattro inni sacri, composed round 1950, the Coro di morti is proof positive that of Petrassi’s skills at the beginning of the 1940s. It remains one of the most admired and frequently performed of his compositions. According to Cardinal Andrea Lanza, the work, composed and premiered during the Second World War, reveals a marked ‘opposition in discourse… between the solitude of man and the destruction surrounding him’, all of which is clearly relayed in the harrowing contrast between relaxed choral lines on the one hand and solid conglomeration of instruments on the other. The Partita is one of the earliest works Petrassi composed.

NIELSEN: Symphony No. 1; Symphony No. 3 ‘Sinfonia Espansiva’ Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, Sakari Oramo BIS SACD 2048 For those of us (such as this writer) who are enjoying the current live performances by Oramo as he works his way through the unique symphonic cycle of Carl Nielsen, it’s a reminder that we are in something of a golden age for the composer. Colin Davis’s Indian summer recordings were set down with the LSO and were a remarkable achievement – as this latest cycle is proving. The recent recording of the Fifth Symphony with its aggressive side-drum was one of the most impressive since Horenstein’s groundbreaking recording, and this new coupling is almost equally competitive in a crowded field The first volume of this new cycle was widely acclaimed upon its release in December 2013 (BIS2028). Symphony No. 1 owes much to Schumann and was completed in 1892, when the composer was still in his mid-twenties. Symphony No. 3 marks Nielsen’s true breakthrough, twenty years after the first symphony, and rapidly established itself as a mainstay of concert repertoire for Europe’s leading orchestras.

BRUCKNER: SYMPHONY NO.4, ‘ROMANTIC’, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Manfred Honeck/Reference Recordings SACD FR-713SACD Bruckner’s avowedly religious sympathies are less in evidence in his Symphony No. 4 in E-flat major (“Romantic”). This secular, pantheistic symphony is perhaps his most popular work, and The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and ther Music Director Manfred Honeck have – in a very short space of time – become one of the most exciting teams in the modern classical world, with recordings that combine superlative musicianship with unparalleled recording quality (courtesy of Reference Recordings). And so (as with the previous Dvořák/Janaček coupling) it again proves here, as we are offered a striking  new interpretation of this imperishable masterpiece, The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and Honeck present the 1878/80 version. the version that was utilised for the symphony’s premiere in 1881.

DEBUSSY: IMAGES, LA MER, ETC. Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Lan Shui/BIS SACD1837 When the SACD medium was a new venture, early adopters were keen to discover favourite works in the new medium. It’s a measure of the success of the medium (despite its being precipitately dropped by major companies such as DG) that we now have a variety of choice for such masterpiece as these Debussy classics. And Lan Shui proves to be among the most able interpreters of these pieces; no surprise in the case of this reading of La Mer, which has previously appeared in another coupling. This new Images proves to be highly competitive, if not quite rivalling great performances of the past – though the sound quality here is, of course, state of the art.

MUSIC FOR ALFRED HITCHCOCK, Danish National Symphony Orchestra, John Mauceri/Toccata Classics TOOCC 0241 With music from the likes of Bernard Herrmann, Franz Waxman and Dimitri Tiomkin, this excellent disc is a salutary reminder how judicious the Master of Suspense was in his choice of composers. Admittedly the original soundtrack recording have (in most cases) more bite, but it’s useful to have these superb scores on one disc in ear-pinging modern sound.

DVORAK: STRING QUARTETS 10 & 11, Zemlinsky Quartet/PRAGA DIGITALSPRD/DSD250 305  Performances of great colour and élan by the Zemlinsky Quartet, finding new things in these idiomatic pieces. The surround sound medium is used with sensitivy.

SCRIABIN/MEDNTER PIANO CONCERTOS BIS SACD 2088  I suppose I should nail my colours to the mask regarding this release; despite the following it has obtained in recent years, Medtner’s piano concerto remains something of a closed book to me, its charm elusive — even in a performance as persuasive (and as well recorded) as this one. But I have no such reservations about the Scriabin which is here given a performance to rival the classic reading by Vladimir Ashkenazy. Yevgeny Sudbin’s releases are eagerly awaited, and the pianist confronts the difficulties of these works with aplomb, aided by the Bergen Philharmonic and their chief conductor Andrew Litton.

VIVALDI: THE FOUR SEASONS Polish Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra, Daniel Gaede, violin Tacet 0163-4  In their customary piquant technique of placing the listener dead centre in the surround sound mix, this is a novel and ear-pleasing approach to an over-familiar masterpiece. A lithe and lean performance enhances the experience.

WEINBERG: Violin Concerto & Symphony No. 4, Kaspszyk, Warsaw Philharmonic / Ilya Gringolts / Jacek/Warner Classics 0825646224838  Yet more Weinberg. The Grammy Award-winning Warsaw Philharmonic, the most significant Polish orchestra of international renown, has begun a major new recording project with Warner Classics, under the baton of Artistic Director Jacek Kaspszyk: a new album of orchestral music by Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996). The album cements Weinberg’s growing posthumous reputation as one of the most important symphonists of the 20th century (he wrote no fewer than 22 works in the genre), along with his mentor Dmitri Shostakovich, the latter counting among the younger composer’s admirers. The Weinberg release follows the Warsaw Philharmonic’s Grammy Award win in 2012 and marks the orchestra’s first recording with its new maestro and artistic director Jacek Kaspszyk, renowned for his innovative approach to programming and his championing of new music.

IMPROMPTUS: CHOPIN/SCHUBERT/FAURÉ, Tomasz Lis/Klangoglo CDKL1511 A very promising debut album from Tomasz Lis, whose approach to these pieces is traditional but full of subtlety and sensitivity.

MENDELSSOHN: CALM SEA AND PROSPEROUS VOYAGE / SYMPHONY NO. 2 ‘HYMN OF PRAISE’* Mary Bevan (soprano I)* / Sophie Bevan (soprano II)* / Benjamin Hewlett (tenor)* / CBSO Chorus*/ City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Edward Gardner. Chandos SACD CHSA 5151  Not everyone has been persuaded by this ambitious cycle of Mendelssohn symphonies from Chandos, and certainly the conductor’s Walton cycle (see above) is much more of an unalloyed success. But there are very good things here not least in the performance of Hymn of Praise in which Gardner manages to some degree to shake off the fusty Victorian ethos of the piece. This is the third recording in the Mendelssohn in Birmingham series, with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and its Principal Guest Conductor.The symphony is synthesis of Cantata and symphony, and remains obstinately non-heterogeneous. But a good case is made for it here.

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10220BRAHMS: SYMPHONY NO. 2; TRAGIC OVERTURE; ACADEMIC FESTIVAL OVERTURE, Budapest Festival Orchestra, Ivan Fischer/CHANNEL CLASSICS CCS SA 33514 SACD The photograph of a smiling Ivan Fisher presented on the cover of this SACD suggests a knowing prescience of the glorious performances of the three Brahms works that are recorded on this disc. This is the second release in Ivan Fischer’s gradually emerging cycle of the Brahms Symphonies with his Budapest Festival Orchestra and is, in every respect, as outstanding as the first. That the Budapest Festival Orchestra is in superlative form here is clear from the opening of the work where the lithe strings float in over a cushion of warm horns and beautifully blended winds. Timpani are notably clear even in the softest passages and Fischer makes the exposition repeat in the first movement – essential for the work’s overall shape and generally adopted more these days from conductors than it was in the past. Fischer’s interpretation is free of mannerisms that could in any way sour a single bar of what is arguably Brahms’s most beautiful symphony. Tempi throughout all four movements of the symphony are beautifully judged. The pace is relaxed, but always with an underlying forward moving pulse and the conductor’s subtle nuances within his set tempi are natural and unforced. That said, Fischer is not afraid to use a modicum of rubato where appropriate and the portamento he applies at the end of the first movement’s coda after an exquisitely phrased horn solo, seems just perfect to my ears. What perhaps is most remarkable about this reading is the sense that, as with so many recordings by Ivan Fischer, he has approached this symphony as if it was a new discovery for him. Brahms’s two contrasting Overtures make ideal fill-ups to the Symphony and they are both given performances that are equally outstanding. The Tragic Overture receives a fiery and cogent reading – taut, dramatic, expansive and entirely free of bathos. The Academic Festival Overture, built on themes taken from student songs and incidentally Brahms’s most heavily orchestrated work is played with gruff humour – the “Fuchs-Lied – Was kommt da von der Höh?” wittily played by rustic sounding bassoons. Fischer builds up the excitement gradually, and at the final statement of the student song ‘Gaudeamus igitur’ triangle cymbals ring out thrillingly underpinned by a firm bass drum. It is hardly necessary to say that the sound quality of this multi-channel 5.0 DSD recording is exemplary. It combines warmth and exceptional instrumental clarity in a remarkable way aided, of course, by the fine acoustic of the venue – the Palace of Arts, Budapest. The ambience provided by the surround channels is ample but not excessive. In short, this is a disc with impressive performances so thoroughly prepared, expertly executed and superbly recorded that one could not reasonably ask for more. Unreservedly recommended.

NIELSEN: SYMPHONY NO. 1 IN G MINOR;SYMPHONY NO. 3, ‘SINFONIA ESPANSIVA’, Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, Sakari Oramo/BIS 2048 SACD This is the second issue in the Nielsen Symphony cycle being undertaken by Sakari Oramo and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra for BIS. The first release, that coupled the 4th and 5th Symphonies, was greeted with considerable critical acclaim both for Oramo’s clear sighted and exciting interpretation and the superb quality of the BIS recording. It is pleasing to report that this coupling of Nielsen’s early 1st Symphony and his 3rd, the ‘Sinfonia Espansiva of 1910 -11 maintains the excellence of the earlier release in all respects. Tempi in both Symphonies hardly differ from those adopted by Alan Gilbert on his accounts (differently coupled ) with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra on Dacapo Records and while both orchestras perform magnificently for their respective conductors, the playing Oramo elicits from the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, especially in the 1st Symphony, has greater drive and character. The explosive opening movement of the ‘Sinfonia Espansiva’ is beautifully judged; its propulsive energy being captured to the full by Oramo and his fine orchestra. The contrasting ‘Andante pastorale’ is notable for the lovely quality of the soprano and baritone solo voices (Anu Komsi and Karl-Magnus Fredriksson) whose delivery of the melismatic vocal line seems well-nigh perfect. The many fugal passages in the final two movements are beautifully articulated while in the Finale the blazing horns statement of the movement’s main theme bring Oramo’s ripe account of this life-enhancing work to a thrilling conclusion. The recordings took place in the warm and generous acoustic of Stockholm’s Concert Hall in January 2013 (Symphony No. 1) and May 2014 (Symphony No. 3), and engineer Thore Brinkman’s 24/bit / 96kHz recording combines the necessary richness and bite to do full justice to Nielsen’s dynamic scores.  This release deserves an unqualified recommendation and makes one impatient for the release of the final instalment (Symphonies 2 and 6) of this excellent cycle during 2015 the Nielsen centenary year.

WEINBERG: CHAMBER SYMPHONIES NOS 3 & 4, Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra, Thord Svedlund/CHANDOS CHSA 5146 SACD Chandos’s fine survey of the orchestral works of Mieczyslaw Weinberg conducted by Thord Svedlund continues with this release of two of the composer’s late works. The two Chamber Symphonies on this beautifully recorded SACD date from the 1990s and show Weinberg’s creative powers to be undimmed even within four years of his death. The ‘Chamber Symphony No. 3 for Strings’ of 1990 is, like its two predecessors, based on the composer’s String Quartets – in this case the Quartet No.5 of 1945. Like Shostakovich in his quartets, Weinberg includes many self quotations throughout the piece, and it is fair to say those who are familiar with the Shostakovich/ Barshai Chamber Symphonies are likely to find much to enjoy here. The sinuous melody that opens the work is described perceptively by David Fanning as stylistically somewhere between Mahler and Bartok. A vigorous scherzo-like movement is followed ‘attacca’ by an eloquent ‘Adagio’ and the work is completed by a finale whose forlorn opening theme proceeds over a steady pizzicato tread in the lower strings before reaching its eventual dissolve into silence. The ‘Chamber Symphony No.4’ of 1992 is, unusually, scored for string orchestra, obbligato clarinet and triangle. The latter instrument only appears in the finale playing just four carefully placed notes. The clarinet part is interpreted with sensitivity and great virtuosity by Johnny Jannesson the principal clarinet of the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra and, as in the previous work, Weinberg makes extensive use of quotations from his earlier compositions. The recordings made in the Konserthuset, Helsingborg (4-7 March 2014) by the experienced team of Lennart Dehn (producer) and Torbjörn Samuelsson (recording engineer) could hardly be bettered in capturing both the acoustic ambience of the hall and the vividness of the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra’s strings over a wide dynamic range. The exceptionally informative liner notes by David Fanning are invaluable for their insights into both the background to these compositions and their musical content. They also include fascinating photographs of the composer and his Soviet colleagues taken over a number of years. Those who enjoy Weinberg’s music need not hesitate.

BACH: BRANDENBURG CONCERTOS, Florilegium, Ashley Solomon/CHANNEL CLASSICS CCS SA 35914 SACD (2 discs) Each new release from Ashley Solomon’s versatile period instrument group Florilegium is always an exciting prospect. A glance at their extensive discography indicates the wide span of their musical interests ranging from Telemann, Vivaldi, Haydn, Couperin and even extending to three exciting volumes of baroque music from Bolivia. It is therefore surprising to find that this is their first recording of one of the high points of Baroque instrumental music – Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. These six ever popular concertos have received countless recordings over the years and have been performed in many different styles, ranging from elephantine and definitely inauthentic performances of the past to the pared down period performances of more recent times. This new set from Florilegium obviously falls into the latter category, but thanks to Ashley Solomon’s beautifully judged tempi in each of the six concerti and Channel’s breathtakingly vivid 5.0 DSD recording made in the Church of St John the Evangelist, Upper Norwood, London in November last year there is a glow, richness and body to the sound that would be the envy of many orchestras. In an interesting departure from the norm these six concertos are presented here not in the familiar order of the set as presented by Bach to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg in 1721, but in reverse. Disc 1 Concertos 6,5 and 4. Disc 2 Concertos 3, 2 and 1. As Ashley Solomon points out in his excellent booklet notes these concertos were never meant to be performed as a set partly due to the constraints of their widely differing instrumentation, so the order in which they are played is largely unimportant. The sequence chosen by Florilegium simply illustrates the increase in instrumental forces as we move through the concertos, from No.6 with its group of just seven strings to No.1– the grandest and most orchestral of the set – requiring a compliment of 13 players and instrumentation that includes oboes, bassoon, horns and piccolo violin as well as a quintet of strings and harpsichord continuo. There is a natural unforced quality to the music making throughout this set that is immediately engaging, and listener’s will surely be delighted by the virtuosity of the soloists whether it be Terence Charlston’s flamboyant harpsichord solos in No.5, Richard Fomison’s stratospheric trumpet playing in No.2 or the lovely recorder duo of Ashley Solomon and Elspeth Robertson in No. 4. To be fair though, the performances of all twenty one musicians heard here deserve the utmost praise. The recording quality, as I have already indicated, is beyond reproach. Solo instruments are beautifully balanced with a wonderful sense of air around them and their spatial positioning within the sound picture is always perfectly defined. The insatiable public demand for new recordings of the Brandenburg Concertos apparently seems unstoppable, but, in spite of fierce competition, this new release from Florilegium should be at the top of anyone’s shopping list.

SCRIABIN / MEDTNER PIANO CONCERTOS, Yevgeny Subdin, Bergen Philharmonic, Andrew Litton/ BIS-2088 SACD The gloriously romantic main theme of the first movement of Scriabin’s early Piano Concerto is one of those lush surging melodies that remains in one’s mind for days after listening to this work. The composer wrote his only Piano Concerto in 1896 at the age of 24 and, as Yevgeny Subdin reminds us in his thoughtful and enthusiastic liner notes, Scriabin’s debt to Chopin should not be overestimated. It is true that Chopin’s influence can clearly be heard at times in the decorative figurations of the piano writing, but as the work progresses elements of Tchaikovsky and even Rachmaninov are detectable as the young composer tries to find his own unique voice. Subdin brings an almost improvisatory feel to the comparatively brief opening ‘Allegro’ movement and both the sensitivity and crystalline clarity of his playing are as impressive as is to be expected from this exceptionally gifted pianist. The second movement marked ‘Andante’ is a most beautiful set of variations, and here praise must be given to the fine support from Andrew Litton and the Bergen Philharmonic that in every way matches the subtle nuances of Subdin’s performance. It is in the joyful ‘Allegro moderato’ finale – the Concerto’s longest movement that Scriabin lyrical outpourings are at their most appealing. Subdin handles the capricious nature of this movement superbly and Litton even manages to inject a degree of transparency into Scriabin’s sometimes rather opaque scoring. Although Ashkenazy’s 1971 version of this concerto with Maazel and the LPO still sounds remarkably fine for its age, Subdin’s different but equally valid interpretation is now likely to be a first choice for most listeners, particularly if sound quality is of paramount importance. Subdin has become something of a standard bearer for the works of Nikolai Medtner (1881-1951) having, with this release, recorded all three of Medtner’s Piano Concertos for BIS with three different orchestras and conductors. Medtner’s 3rd Piano Concerto, ‘Ballade’, arguably his finest, was premiered by the composer and Sir Adrian Boult in 1944 and it is dedicated to the Maharajah of Mysore, a champion of Medtner and founder of the Medtner Society. Though ostensibly in three movements played without a break, the middle one marked ‘Interludium’ lasts less than a minute and a half so is really just a linking section framed by two fantasia-like outer movements, each of which test the expressive abilities and technical prowess of the solo performer to the limit. The many changes of mood and pace suit Subdin’s style of imaginative pianism and flamboyant virtuosity to perfection while Andrew Litton and his Bergen forces provide a wonderfully rich cushion of glowing orchestral sound. Though this work has received a number of fine recordings on CD most notably in the 1990s from Nikolai Demidenko (Hyperion) and Geoffrey Tozer (Chandos), Subdin’s incendiary account recorded in superb BIS sound will prove irresistible for many.

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PENTATONE QUADRAPHONIC CLASSICS: MOZART: PIANO CONCERTOS NOS. 14 & 26, Berliner Philharmoniker, Tamas Vasary/RAVEL: ORCHESTRAL WORKS, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa/GIULIANI, CASTELNUOVO-TEDESCO,VILLA-LOBOS: Guitar Concertos  Narciso Yepes, London Symphony Orchestra, Luis Navarro/BACH: BRANDENBURG CONCERTOS, Members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, Pinchas Zukerman/PentaTone SACD For those (such as this writer) who remember the original LP issues of quadraphonic recordings decades ago there is – generally — one abiding memory: the fact was that very few of us possessed the necessary equipment to hear the multi-channel facility of the discs as the engineers intended us to, and (as a corollary to that) when played on ordinary stereophonic equipment of the day (when mixed down to 2 channels), such discs didn’t sound notably more impressive than ordinary recordings. But what a luxury in the 21st-century to hear these discs, not only as they were originally intended, but clearly sounding better on SACD than they would have done when originally recorded, given the technological limitations of the long-playing record. PentaTone have led the way in making this material available again in their valuable reissues (which includes material previously unreleased) and this latest batch, attractively presented, not only offers superlative sound values (as one would expect) but reinvigorates some classic performances, such as the Tamas Vasary Mozart piano concertos 14 and 26 issued here. Another revelation is the set of the Bach Brandenburg Concertos, performed by a larger group than one might expect these days, but still sounding immensely musical and sympathetic under the direction of Pinchas Zukerman. If the sound of the Ozawa Ravel disc is a little opaque, it is particularly pleasurable to hear the great guitarist Narciso Yepes in recordings that do justice to his definitive performances of the guitar concerto repertoire.

VIVALDI: SEVEN WITH A STROKE!/THE FOUR SEASONS Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, Ariadne Daskalalakis/Tacet B205 & Polish Chamber Philharmonic, Daniel Gaede/Tacet S163  Forget the gimmicky title of the first disc; this is a superlative collection of Vivaldi concerti delivered with affection, in which the listener (as is customary with the Tacet label) is placed via complete surround sound directly in the centre of the musicians, will be rear channels used for individual instruments rather than to provide concert hall ambience. There are those object to this strategy, but there is no denying the immense effectiveness of this immersive experience – and naysayers could consider that this is how the musicians themselves experience a performance. The players have the absolute measure of Vivaldi, as in the sister recording of The Four Seasons from the same company, which equally does justice to the familiar counterpoint, allowing individual stands strands to be heard with maximum clarity (and as a codicil, Tacet’s issue of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos also deserves a hearty welcome).

ENGLISH SONG John Shirley Quirk, baritone, various pianists/Heritage HTGCD 283/4  While Bryn Terfel holds the crown today, there was a time when Britain’s finest baritone was undoubtedly the late John Shirley-Quirk. The Liverpool-born singer’s beautiful timbre, consummate musicianship and (notably) attention to detail in lyrics placed him firmly at the top of the tree. I once interviewed him in his native city before his appearance in Britten’s opera Death in Venice, and before the interview he was singing in rehearsal some of the material which had just arrived from Britten — it’s musical moments like that that one does not forget. Shirley-Quirk’s three early LPs for the Saga label were acclaimed as being among the glories of the gramophone, and his performance of such works as Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel were long considered to be definitive, although later performances by such singers as the aforementioned Bryn Terfel have challenged that supremacy. But here are those splendid recitals on two CDs, admittedly showing their age but sounding better than they have ever done – and they are a reminder what an asset the late baritone was to the English music scene.

MCCABE:  SYPHONY NO.1, etc., National Youth Orchestra of Scotland, John McCabe/NAXOS 8.571370  A welcome  collection of several important recordings of the music of the celebrated British composer John McCabe, none of which has appeared before on CD. Admittedly, the age of the recordings (dating from the 60s to the 80s) means that none of them is in the highest of fi, but a certain amount of tape hiss is more than acceptable when several gaps in the McCabe recorded repertoire are plugged here (we have had the Second Symphony for some time, but this is the first appearance on CD of its predecessor). The First Symphony, heard here in its only recording to date by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under John Shashall, is a work of keen intelligence and kinetic energy. The Fantasy on a Theme of Liszt is a consummately crafted work, performed with masterful skill by McCabe at the piano. Scored for very large orchestra, ‘Tuning’ develops layers of texture and sonority of overwhelming richness in which the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland revel – this is the only recording of John McCabe as conductor.

R. STRAUSS: ELEKTRA, Evelyn Herlitzius, Various artists, Essa-Pekka Salonen/Bel-Air Classiques Blu-ray BAC410  in terms of opera on Blu-ray, we are in something of a golden age with a variety of choices available to listeners. Proof? Here is another splendid Blu-ray recording of Richard Strauss’s masterpiece Elektra to join the several impressive sets available. This was the last production ever staged by Patrice Chéreau, and this disc preserves one of the most striking opera events of recent years.

BEETHOVEN: Ah! Perfido, etc./CHERUBINI: Symphony, etc. Maria Bengtsson, Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne, Bertrand de Billy/MDG 940 1854-6 SACD With the very able Maria Bengtsson accompanied by the Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne conducted by Bertrand de Billy, these pieces are given the best possible advocacy; particularly welcome as these are the first performances in the surround sound medium.

WAGNER: THE SYMPHONIC RING, Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie, Daniel Klajner/Coviello COV 91417 SACD while Wagnerian purists may sniff at the notion of orchestral versions of The Ring (or ‘bleeding chunks of Wagner’ as these excerpts used to be known), it’s clear that many listeners do not share this disapproval, as a variety of such discs continues to appear. This latest one is different from all of its predecessors in not attempting to condense Wagner’s 15-hour masterpiece onto a single disc, and we are given two well-filled SACDs with virtually every important orchestral passage included (the arrangements are by Andreas N Tarkmann) – and in performances of great authority. Some of the transcriptions of vocal lines (such as the ‘Wintersturme’ duet from Die Walkure, for instance) are less successful, but the disc is sheer delight for those not given to snobbishness.

RAVEL: DAPHNIS ET CHLOE, Beethoven Orchester Bonn, Stefan Blunier MDG 937 1863-6 SACD Ravel’s beguiling ballet has been particularly lucky in the surround sound medium, with excellent performances on disc from such conductors as Haitink and Gergiev. Here is another exemplary reading which finds much of the music’s poetry and drama in impressive sound.

BACH: THE ART OF FUGUE/THE WELL TEMPERED CLAVIER Angela Hewitt, piano; John Butt, harpsichord/Hyperion & Linn Those who have acquired the comprehensive multidisc set by Angela Hewitt of Bach’s keyboard music will need little persuasion to acquire this new edition of The Art of Fugue by the pianist, played with her customary sensitivity and precision. More Bach keyboard music is available in the Linn set of The Well-Tempered Clavier played by John Butt which utilises recent editions, allowing the listener to experience the latest possible stage of Bach’s thoughts for each book. Many listeners (such as this writer) will now prefer the music played on a modern concert piano, but John Butt makes the best case for this music on a harpsichord — if, that is, you don’t tire of the limited harpsichord timbre.

GRIEG: COMPLETE SYMPHONIC WORKS VOLUME 4, Herbert Schuch, piano, WDR Sinf., Eivind Aadkand/Audite 92.670 SACD With Volume 4, this commendable Audite series finally gets around to Grieg’s most popular work, his warhorse Piano Concerto, enterprisingly coupled with what is perhaps the composer’s least-known music, his withdrawn Symphony in C Minor. The latter is hardly essential listening, but Grieg aficionados will welcome this sensitive performance which makes a good case for it, and the concerto is given a reading of great spirit and colour.

TCHAIKOVSKY SERENADE FOR STRINGS IN C/BARTOK DIVERTIMENTO FOR STRING ORCHESTRA LSO String Ensemble, Roman Simovic/LSO Live LSO 0752 SACD A reminder – if reminder were needed– just how world-class the string section of the London Symphony Orchestra is, now finally the equal of the orchestra’s celebrated brass section, the latter long considered among the finest in the world. Both pieces here are given performances of great authority.

CLASSICAL CD CHOICE CD OF THE MONTH: BACH: BRANDENBURG CONCERTOS, Floreligium/Channel Classics CCSA 35914 SACD  Those looking for pointed, authentic-sounding performances of these imperishable masterpieces in multi-channel now have a variety of choices, but this lively set (in a new order) by Floreligium is particularly recommendable, and at a stroke joins the finest available.

SZYMANOWSKI : SYMPHONY NO.1 / LOVE SONGS OF HAFIZ, OP.26/ SYMPHONY NO.3, OP.27  Ben Johnson (tenor), BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Edward Gardner/CHANDOS SACD CHSA 5143  Chandos is a label celebrated for its attention to repertoire in which orchestration is a crucial element, so it’s hardly surprising that the company’s Szymanowski series has proved to be a winner seeing off all competition — which is very much the case with this latest issue in which Edward Gardner returns with the BBC Symphony Orchestra to the intoxicating orchestral music of Szymanowski in their third disc devoted to the composer. Tenor Ben Johnson joins Gardner and the BBC SO here as a soloist in two works. Szymanowski’s Symphony No. 1 was composed in 1907 while he was still in his twenties. Stylistically it belongs to his early period, heavily influenced by the late-Romantic style of Wagner and Strauss. The exquisite Love Songs of Hafiz for tenor soloist and orchestra are transitional works. Composed in 1911, they represent a move toward his middle period marked by a fascination with oriental themes, here reflected in the choice to set 14th Century Persian poetry. Scored for a huge orchestra with choir and tenor soloist, Szymanowski’s Symphony No. 3 ‘Song of the Night’ is one his masterpieces.

TCHAIKOVSKY: THE NUTCRACKER, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Neeme Järvi/CHANDOS SACD CHSA 5144  For those who have been collecting the Järvi/Chandos recordings of the Tchaikovsky ballets, this final issue will be unmissable. This complete, uncut version of The Nutcracker follows The Sleeping Beauty (CHSA 5113(2)) and Swan Lake (CHSA 5124 (2)). The Nutcracker draws its influences from both Hoffmann’s and Dumas’s tales of the same name, and for this recording, Neeme Järvi and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra have re-explored Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece together, in order to offer a completely new experience of one of the most-performed ballets in musical history.

SOMETHING’S GOTTA GIVE: Songs by Jerome Kern & Hammerstein, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Lerner & Loewe et al. Simon Keenlyside (baritone) Scarlett Strallen (soprano), BBC Concert Orchestra, David Charles Abell/CHANDOS CHAN 10838   The history of classical singers tackling Broadway material from the great American songbook has been distinctly spotty, with few singers managing to find the nuance that (say) Frank Sinatra routinely found in the songs of Gershwin et al. Jessye Norman, for instance, despite the beauty of tone, always sounded overbearing in such repertoire (with the odd felicitous exception). Simon Keenlyside, however, joins the ranks of such singers as Thomas Allen in knowing exactly how to deliver such songs, shading down the voice, for instance when necessary. Scarlett Strallen partners Keenlyside in duets and sings two numbers on her own. They are joined by David Charles Abell, a musician steeped in the tradition of musical theatre, who conducts the BBC Concert Orchestra the original orchestral arrangements, a number of which have been specially restored for this recording.

KHACHATURIAN/PROKOFIEV PIANO CONCERTOS Nareh Arghamanyan, Ruundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, Alain Altogluu/PentaTone PTC 5186 510 SACD  (N.B. Graham Williams’ review of this disc appears elsewhere)This is the first appearance in the surround sound medium for the Khachaturian piano concerto, and it is generally a splendid performance – without, perhaps, the last ounce of dynamism to be found in (for instance) the Chandos recording of this piece by Constantine Orbellian (stereo only). Fewer reservations about the dynamic take on the Prokofiev 3rd, which is delivered with something close to the requisite amount of panache.