Graham Williams on Fischer’s Mendelssohn

VIVALDI: THE QUATTRO STAGIONI, Brecon Baroque, Rachel Podger/Channel Classics SACD CCSSA40318  For the countless admirers of the playing of Rachel Podger and her Period group Brecon Baroque this latest recording of Vivaldi’s ‘Le Quattro Stagioni’ (The Four Seasons) – the most celebrated four violin concertos drawn from his Op. 8 set of 12 violin concertos entitled ‘Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione’ (The Trial of Harmony and Invention) – will be a mandatory purchase. Having already made superlative accounts for Channel Classics of Vivaldi’s ‘La Stravaganza’ Op.4, ‘La Cetra’ Op.9 and ‘L’Estro Armonico’ Op.3 (the latter with Brecon Baroque) – thirty six concertos in total – it is perhaps not surprising that Podger has, until now, avoided adding to the hundreds of recordings of ‘Le Quattro Stagioni’ competing for attention in the catalogue. The violinist’s celebration of her 50th birthday has been the stimulus for this latest enterprise and it proves to be worthwhile in every way. The world-class virtuosi who together comprise Brecon Baroque have an unrivalled grasp of period style and this may be one reason why Podger decided to perform the work with one instrument to a part, a decision that brings each of her trusted colleagues into the spotlight as much as the principal soloist and director herself. The line-up consists of Johannes Pramsohler and Sabine Stoffer (violins), Jane Rogers (viola), Alison McGillivray (violoncello), Jan Spencer (violone), Daniele Caminiti (theorbo) and Marcin Świątkiewicz (harpsichord/chamber organ) who both individually and collectively contribute as much as the soloist to the success of these performances. For some listeners used to performances with larger bodies of strings the relatively lean textures here may come as a shock, but one’s ear quickly adjusts to this and we are able to relish to the full the remarkable purity of the burnished sound and the colouristic opportunities offered to each instrumentalist, especially from the lute and theorbo. Needless to say Podger’s peerless execution of the solo part in each concerto is beyond reproach as is the abundant imagination she displays in ensuring that every aspect of Vivaldi’s pictorial imagery is perfectly defined for the listener. Pacing of the outer movements all four concertos is relaxed, but always full of rhythmic zest, while the reflective central movements are imbued with a mesmerising beauty, free from any indulgence. Most (though by no means all) versions of ‘The Four Seasons’ on disc add one of more fillers to the main work. Here the theme of Vivaldi compositions with programmatic titles is continued with the addition of three such concertos – the intimate ‘Il Riposo per Il Santissimo Natale’, RV 270, the lyrical’ Concerto L’Amoroso’ RV271 and finally the spectacular ‘Concerto Il Grosso Mogul’ RV208 – that add up to give this SACD a generous total playing time of 75.24. Rachel Podger’s lovely cantabile playing and seamless line characterise the first two of these concertos while her dazzling virtuosity is given free rein, especially in the scintillating cadenza that concludes the latter. It will come as no surprise to discover that the Channel Classics team (recording engineer Jared Sacks and producer Jonathan Freeman-Attwood) have done full justice to these musicians by providing a beautifully balanced recording (5.0 channel DSD) of unparalleled realism that perfectly recreates the fine acoustic of St. Jude’s Church, London where from the 9th to the 12th of October 2017 the sessions took place. With the ever-burgeoning multiplicity of recordings of Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ it is difficult for any newcomer to demand attention in what is arguably the most fiercely competitive market for any classical work. However, here we have a fresh, uplifting account of Vivaldi’s ubiquitous masterpiece performed impeccably by one of the world’s finest period violinists and recorded in state-of the art sound. What more needs to be said?

WALTON: VIOLA CONCERTO, etc., James Ehnes / BBC SO / Edward Gardner CHANDOS SACD CHSA 5210  The third release in Edward Gardner’s excellent Walton survey for Chandos features three of the composer’s less frequently performed works, beginning with his Viola Concerto. This was composed in 1928/29, at the suggestion of Sir Thomas Beecham, and was originally intended for the eminent viola player Lionel Tertis who initially rejected it. Walton revised the concerto in 1936 and again in 1961 in which the composer rescored the work for a smaller orchestra – double instead of triple woodwind, the omission of one trumpet and tuba but adding a harp – and it is this final version that is given here with the incomparable James Ehnes as soloist. Ehnes has already recorded Walton’s Violin Concerto for another label (unfortunately not on SACD), but on this new release he demonstrates that he is equally adept on his second instrument. The Viola Concerto is essentially a romantic work full of lyrical melancholy, ideally suited to the viola’s uniquely introspective timbre, though the central scherzo displays Walton’s characteristic rhythmic pungency. Ehnes, performing on a viola made c. 1740 by Carlo Bergonzi, gives a superbly poised and typically nuanced account of the work. The opening ‘Andante comodo’ allows appreciation of the silken sounds he draws from his instrument while the movement that follows marked ‘Vivo, e molto preciso’ demonstrates his unforced virtuosity to the full. The accompaniment from Gardner and the BBC SO is always alert while the balance between soloist and orchestra is very natural with no undue spotlighting of the solo viola. I can’t imagine Ehnes’s recording of this concerto being equalled let alone surpassed in the foreseeable future. In 1970 the conductor Neville Marriner tried unsuccessfully to persuade Walton to write a brand new work for his Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, but Marriner was able to persuade the composer that his String Quartet of 1945-47 might be transcribed for string orchestra. With the assistance of Walton’s colleague and friend Malcolm Arnold the work was undertaken resulting in the ‘Sonata for String Orchestra’ heard here.The work is much more than a mere transcription of the Quartet. Walton made a number of changes to the original 1st movement and, by alloting many passages to solo instruments, he was able to provide intriguing contrasts in each of the four movements in addition to keeping textures clear. Aided by the wide-ranging Chandos recording, the interchange between the passages for solo quartet and the full string ensemble are startlingly etched, while the richness and athleticism of the BBC SO string section is beyond reproach. Walton’s ‘Partita for Orchestra’, the final work on this SACD was the result a commission from George Szell in 1955 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Cleveland Orchestra of which he was the musical director. Amazingly Szell’s 1959 recording of this brilliant work was an early release on single layer SACD and is still in the catalogue. The work has three short movements whose titles are self explanatory. The two vigorous outer movements (Toccata Brioso and Giga Burlesca) use the full orchestra and require the maximem virtuosity from the players, while contrast of mood and pace are provided by the central ‘Pastorale Siciliana’ that opens with a duet between solo viola and solo oboe. To quote from the composer’s typically laconic programme notes for the first performance: “My Partita poses no problems, has no ulterior motive or meaning behind it and makes no attempt to ponder the imponderables”. Gardner and the BBC Symphony rise to the challenges of this engaging piece with terrific incisive playing in which the outer movements fairly crackle with kinetic thrust, while the middle movement moves with an easy grace thanks to the conductor’s flowing tempo. The crisp Chandos recording captures every detail of Walton’s spicy orchestration making this version in every way a worthy successor to Szell’s classic recording of the piece.In addition to the excellent engineering of Ralph Couzens, all three works benefit from the warm acoustic of the Watford Colosseum where they were recorded (17 and 18 June 2017) and I hope we will not have to wait too long for further Walton releases on SACD from this team – Belshazzar’s Feast and the two Coronation marches immediately spring to mind. Highly recommended to all Walton admirers.

 

Respighi from BIS, Schmitt from Chandos

SCHMITT: SYMPHONY NO. 2, SUITES FROM ‘ANTOINE ET CLEOPATRE’, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sakari Oramo/Chandos SACD CHSA5200 Over many years record companies have somewhat fitfully mined the rich seam of works by the French composer Florent Schmitt (1870-1958). To many listeners, I suspect, the bulk of his prolific output remains pretty well unknown; the only possible exception being ‘La Tragédie de Salomé’ Op. 50. That “drame muet” has received a number of fine recordings including one on SACD from Chandos. Like many of his Gallic contemporaries born in the 1860s and 70s Schmitt was influenced by both the legacy of Wagner and the impressionism of Debussy, but his music does possess a distinctive character of its own as is clear from the three works making their SACD debut on this outstanding new Chandos release. In 1920, Schmitt provided the incidental music for a lavish new production of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra in an adaptation by André Gide that was staged at the Paris Opera by the celebrated dancer and actress Ida Rubinstein. From this incidental music Schmitt later extracted the two extended Suites heard here. Within a few bars of the languorous opening of the 1st ‘Antoine et Cléopâtre Suite’ it is clear that Schmitt’s sound world is reminiscent of that of Ravel (especially the ballet ‘Daphnis and Chloe’), whilst Richard Strauss is also clearly an important influence on this sumptuously orchestrated and atmospheric music. The titles of five of the six movements relate directly to the play, but the middle section of the 2nd Suite is a thrilling ballet marked ‘Orgie et Danses’ that illustrates the composer’s complete mastery of his large orchestral palette. Sakari Oramo and the musicians of BBC Symphony Orchestra relish the opportunities Schmitt provides in this ravishing music and respond with beautifully cultured playing full of style and panache. The recordings (made in the generous acoustic of Watford Colosseum 29-30 October 2017) are wonderfully detailed, but with a sumptuous quality typical of this label. The other work on this disc is the Symphony No. 2 Op137 – the composer’s final orchestral composition – completed in 1957 when Schmitt was 87 years old. It received its first performance in Strasbourg in June 1958 in the presence of the composer and conducted by Charles Munch. The Symphony is in three movements (fast-slow-fast) and from the start it is immediately apparent that Schmitt, even in old age, has not lost his creative powers nor his ability for brilliant orchestration, demonstrated here by his fastidious use of an extensive percussion section that includes triangle, cymbals, tam-tam, celesta, xylophone, bass drum and bells. The music of the Symphony is both tonal and melodic; the energetic and engaging outer movements characterised by rapid and quirky changes of rhythm and mood that keep the players (and listeners) on their toes. The deeply felt slow middle movement with its yearning horn solos provides a sense of repose and perhaps a hint of nostalgia for earlier times. It quickly becomes clear that Sakari Oramo has the full measure of the complexities of this work and both he and the BBC Symphony Orchestra meet its technical challenges with ease. Once again the superb Chandos recording does full justice to Oramo’s masterly and sympathetic reading of Schmitt’s rewarding composition. Thanks both to the sonic benefits of multi-channel SACD and the quality of the performances, this release is a major addition the discography of this unduly neglected composer and can be unreservedly recommended.

RESPIGHI: VETRATE DI CHIESA; IL TRAMONTO; TRITTICO BOTTICELLIANO, Anna Caterina Antonacci, Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège, John Neschling/BIS2250 SACD  There can be little doubt that John Neschling’s comprehensive series of recordings of Respighi’s orchestral works for BIS has set a standard in both performance and sonic terms that future competitors will find hard to emulate let alone exceed. The series began some eight years ago with a spectacular release of Respighi’s Roman Trilogy that not only fully embraced the benefits of multi-channel sound but also indicated the conductor’s empathy with Respighi’s music. Neschling’s orchestra then was the São Paulo Symphony, but for the four subsequent releases, including this one, he has collaborated with the fine Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège whose eloquent playing has additionally been enhanced by the superb acoustics of the Salle Philharmonique in Liège. This disc opens with Respighi’s charming ‘Trittico Botticelliano’ inspired by three of the Renaissance painter’s most famous canvases. The composer’s orchestral mastery is evident in every bar of these miniature tone poems for small orchestra that perfectly evoke the subject and mood of each of the paintings – ‘La Primavera’ (Spring), ‘L’adorazione dei Magi’ (The Adoration of the Magi) and ‘La nascita di Venere’ (The Birth of Venus). Neschling takes a more measured view of all three movements than many of his competitors on disc, and while this allows the listener to relish the clarity and luminous quality of the superb BIS recording, a touch more forward impetus would definitely have been advantageous. This is especially true of ‘La Primavera’ which lacks a modicum of the lightness and sparkle appropriate to its subject. Incidentally the liner notes lists this movement’s duration incorrectly as 4.54 when it is in fact 6.06. Respighi composed his exquisite setting of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem ‘Il Tramonto’ (The Sunset) in 1914. Though originally written for mezzo soprano and string quartet it is the version with string orchestra that is performed here. The choice of Anna Caterina Antonacci as the soloist is most welcome. The sensitivity of her ravishing singing and ability to communicate every nuance of the text to the listener is clearly a product of her wide experience on the opera stage, while Neschling’s flowing accompaniment is always attentive to the needs of his soloist. The BIS liner notes helpfully reproduce both the Italian and English text of Shelley’s poem. Finally we enter blockbuster territory with Neschling’s imposing account of the four-movement ‘Vetrate di Chiesa’. This work started life as ‘Three Piano Preludes on Gregorian Melodies’ and after the addition of a fourth piece, the composer orchestrated them and added evocative titles to each of the movements that suggest scenes that might appear on the stained-glass windows of a church.Here Neschling’s measured approach pays dividends giving Respighi’s Gregorian melodies a majesty and grandeur captured in a recording of unsurpassed splendour. The calm and poetic music of ‘La fuga in Egitto’ ( The Flight into Egypt) allows for some beautifully turned wind solos from the Liège players while the devotional ‘Il mattutino di Santa Chiara’ (The Matins of St. Clare) also features subtly nuanced string playing towards its close. Neschling is particularly successful in the pacing and dramatic thrust of the exciting ‘San Michele Arcangelo’ (St. Michael Archangel). The atmospheric off-stage trumpet solo in the middle of this piece is perfectly distanced on this recording and provides a moment of repose before the build up to the spectacular triple forte tam-tam crash that ends this section. The final and longest movement of the work is ‘San Gregorio Magno’ (St. Gregory the Great) and here the conductor’s clear sense of purpose and masterly control of his gargantuan orchestral forces, that include an organ and large percussion section, is never in doubt. He unfolds this imposing Gregorian fantasia with impressive solemnity before bringing it to a blazing peroration that will lift you from your seat. As I have already indicated the recording team of producer Ingo Petry (Take5 Music Production) and sound engineer Martin Nagorni (Acantus Musikproduktion) have captured Neschling’s eloquent performances in state-of-the-art sound that could not conceivably do more justice to Respighi’s sumptuous scores. In every way this is a worthy addition to the finest Respighi survey on disc for many years.

 

 

More Copland from Chandos

COPLAND: ORCHESTRAL WORKS 3, BBC Philharmonic, John Wilson Chandos SACD CHSA 5195   John Wilson’s comprehensive survey of the orchestral works of Aaron Copland for Chandos has now reached its third Volume and like the earlier issues this one brings authoritative accounts of three of the composer’s lesser performed works and one of his most popular, performed here with typical brilliance by the BBC Philharmonic and captured in vivid multi-channel sound on SACD. The opening item on the disc is a performance of the delightfully carefree and energetic ‘An Outdoor Overture’ that Copland wrote in 1938 for the New York High School of Music and Art whilst simultaneously working on his ballet ‘Billy the Kid’. Continue reading

GRANDISSIMA GRAVITA

GRANDISSIMA GRAVITA, Brecon Baroque, Rachel Podger/Challange Classics CCS SA 39217  Discerning collectors and lovers of the baroque violin in particular already know that every release from Rachel Podger and her accomplished colleagues in the period instrument group Brecon Baroque is always worth investigating. Podger’s combination of probing musical intelligence and joyous virtuosity makes each issue one to savour. This is especially true of her latest disc in which she performs sonatas by Vivaldi, Tartini, Veracini and Pisendel – four composers who were not only close contemporaries but are also linked by their indebtedness and admiration for the musical inventiveness and originality of Arcangelo Corelli. The disc opens with Vivaldi’s Sonata for violin and continuo in A major, Op.2 No. 2, one of the set of twelve sonatas written by the composer in 1709. This is a short but beguiling piece in which the contribution of members of Brecon Baroque – Daniele Caminiti (lute and guitar), Alison McGillivray (cello) and Marcin Świątkiewicz (harpsichord) – is as delightful and imaginative as that of the soloist. The “Grandissima Gravita” title for this disc is provided by the four minor key sonatas that follow.
Tartini’s Sonata in A minor Op.2 No.5 opens with a richly expressive ‘Andante Cantabile’ that allows the eloquence of Podger’s playing to hold the listener entranced throughout its eight minutes duration. The two well-contrasted sonatas by Veracini, in G minor and D minor respectively, are beautifully nuanced in the more reflective movements by these performers while there is plenty of rhythmic bounce in the more lively ones. The fourth sonata on this disc is by Johann Georg Pisendel the German violinist and composer who for many years led the Court Orchestra in Dresden. Pisendel was much admired by Vivaldi, Albinoni and Telemann all of whom dedicated violin concertos to him. The four-movement ‘Sonata for violin and harpsichord in C minor’ notable for the improvisatory nature of the opening ‘Adagio’ and the grave tranquillity of the ‘Affetuoso ‘ third movement, is given a typically engaging and fluent performance in which Podger is ably supported by Marcin Świątkiewicz and Alison McGillivray. Continue reading

Strauss & Mahler from Pentatone


  1. STRAUSS: ALSO SPRACH ZARATHUSTRA, MAHLER: TOTENFEIER, RSO Berlin, Vladimir Jurowski Pentatone PTC5186 597 SACD Those familiar with his work with the London Philharmonic Orchestra will know that Vladimir Jurowski is one of the most exciting and gifted conductors of his generation, so his new appointment as Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of the RSO Berlin is a cause for celebration. The possibility of a really outstanding performance and recording of Strauss’s ‘Also sprach Zarathustra’ in multi-channel sound from Pentatone was also an enticing prospect, but unfortunately my high expectations for this release were not met. The famous opening ‘Einleitung’ should be sonorous and immediately arresting, but here it makes little impact. The timpani sound boomy and cavernous while the Seifert organ – dubbed on from the St. Matthias Kirche, Berlin-Schöneberg – sounds unimpressive and decidedly lacking in weight in the lower frequencies. As the work proceeds Jurowski elicits some luscious string sounds from his fine orchestra and the fairly closely miked recording allows much detail in the orchestration to be heard. The fugal ‘Von der Wissenschaft’ section is especially clearly articulated by the double basses – not always the case, but again the lack of heft from the organ at the climax of this section is disappointing. ‘Das ‘Tanzlied’ benefits from the deft playing of concertmaster Rainer Walters and though at times Jurowski’s tempi seem a tad cautious, the build up to the final huge climax and the strokes of the midnight bell are impressively delivered. The concluding epilogue ‘Nachtwanderlied’ typifies Jurowski’s rather cerebral approach to this piece. ‘Also sprach Zarathustra’, though running continuously, has nine clearly defined sections, but Pentatone, in contrast to most of the available alternative versions on disc has unaccountably (and unhelpfully) allotted a single track to the whole work that lasts 32′ 53”. They did the same with their recent recording of Strauss’s ‘Ein Heldenleben’, another regrettable decision. Jurowski and his orchestra seem much more involved with their account of Mahler’s early symphonic poem ‘Totenfeier’ that the composer re-worked as the opening movement of his second symphony. Here the playing is fiercely committed and makes a good case for occasional outings of this example of Mahler’s first thoughts. “The Symphonic Prelude in C minor,” attributed here to Mahler is a student work from 1876 that sounds very like early Bruckner. There is no trace of the original score, but a preliminary sketch for it, apparently made by one of Mahler’s student friends, is preserved at the Austrian National Library. The task of orchestrating the Prelude was undertaken (at the request of Peter Ruzicka the artistic director of the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra) by Albrecht Gürsching, the Hamburg composer and musicologist and it was first performed in March1981 by this orchestra conducted by Lawrence Foster. Subsequent research, however, has thrown doubt as to whether this piece is actually by Mahler and Henri de La Grange, a leading authority on the composer, has wisely expressed the view that: “Until such time as new evidence comes to light, it seems extremely unwise to ascribe this piece to Mahler”. The current general consensus seems to be that if not by Bruckner himself it is probably by one of the Bruckner adherents among Mahler’s fellow students. This short brooding piece is, to be honest, pretty unremarkable, but Jurowski’s expansive performance does it more justice than that heard on Neeme Järvi’s 1992 account for Chandos. Pentatone’s DSD recording is to the usual high house standard and, while perhaps not their finest, does not disappoint.

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New from LSO Live & Tacet

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

Opulent Schmidt & Mahler from MDG & Channel

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

Invigorating New World & St John Passion

 

DVORAK: Symphony No.9 in E minor ‘From the New World’, Houston Symphony Orchestra, Orozco-Estrada/ PENTATONE SACD PTC 5186 574  This, the third and final release of Andrés Orozco-Estrada’s survey with the Houston Symphony of Dvorak’s four most popular symphonies for the PENTATONE label is completed by the composer’s most popular work, the celebrated Symphony No.9 in E minor ‘From the New World’. With a plethora of recordings of the New World Symphony available on both CD and High Resolution formats (SACD and Blu-ray) collectors face a daunting though pleasurable task in choosing one or more versions for their libraries. Continue reading

New BIS & Chandos

SIBELIUS: Kullervo, Finlandia (choral version); KORTEKANGAS: Migrations, Lilli Paasikivi (mezzo-soprano), Tommi Hakala (baritone), YL Male Voice Choir, Minnesota Orchestra, Osmo Vänskä (conductor) BIS SACD

Ever since its first commercial recording in 1970 Sibelius’s Kullervo Symphony Op.7 has been blessed by a remarkable number of perceptive interpretations on disc, five of which have been issued on SACD in high resolution multi-channel sound, providing fierce competition to any newcomer. Now, following on from Osmo Vänskä’s superb cycle of the seven numbered Sibelius Symphonies with the Minnesota Orchestra, we have his latest thoughts on this monumental five movement work. This new live recording is taken from three concerts (4th, 5th and 6th of February 2016) given at Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis and is in every respect a serious challenger to existing versions. Osmo Vänskä first recorded Kullervo in 2001 with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra as part of his first Sibelius cycle for BIS and excellent though it was, I have no hesitation in declaring that this new one is even better on a number of counts. Continue reading