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.
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, 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
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
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
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
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
STRAUSS: ELEKTRA & DER ROSENKAVALIER SUITES, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Manfred Honeck/Reference Recordings SACD FR-722 All Straussians will be intrigued by this latest release from Manfred Honeck and his marvellous Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra of orchestral suites from what many would regard as the greatest of the composer’s fifteen operas – Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier, (though I would also include Salome and Die Frau ohne Schatten in any shortlist). Honeck has already demonstrated his mastery of the Strauss idiom in his previous fine accounts of some of the tone poems for both the Reference Recordings and Exton labels so the bar is set very high for any new release in this series. The first item on the disc is the world premiere recording of a suite from Strauss’s fourth opera Elektra. This opera, the composer’s first collaboration with the poet and playwright Hugo von Hofmannsthal, could fairly be described as a tone poem with voices, since the orchestra is without doubt the main protagonist. Of course, as well as being fully staged in the opera house, Elektra is often given in concert performance and this is possibly one of the reasons why Honeck, in collaboration with the Czech composer Tomáš Ille, has produced this ‘Symphonic Rhapsody’, first heard in Pittsburgh in 2014, as a means to bring the appreciation of Strauss’s searing masterpiece to an even wider audience. Honeck and Ille have carried out what was surely a challenging task with considerable skill and fashioned a coherent and gripping single-movement piece lasting 33’39” that convincingly encapsulates both the dramatic power of Strauss’s music and the crux of the original blood soaked tragedy. In the liner notes accompanying this superbly recorded SACD, Honeck provides a guide (with timings) to the music he has selected for his arrangement. Continue reading
TCHAIKOVSKY: SYMPHONY NO.6, ETC., Budapest Festival Orchestra, Ivan Fischer/Channel Classics SACDCCSA37016 It is now more than ten years since Ivan Fischer and his crack Budapest Festival Orchestra recorded a Tchaikovsky symphony for Channel Classics. Back then it was the 4th Symphony, a version that while widely praised did receive minor criticism in some quarters for a couple of idiosyncrasies in Fischer’s conducting. Over the intervening period both Fischer and his orchestra have produced a series of outstanding recordings that clearly illustrate how this conductor has now become, more than ever, a facilitator who brilliantly links the composer and composition with us, the listeners. His interpretive ideas, underpinned by a fierce musical intelligence, have increasingly become a means to that end rather than representing any attempt at self-aggrandisement. Continue reading