Music as Alchemy: Journeys with Great Conductors and their Orchestras Tom Service

Many a forest has been felled to produce unnecessary books on music, but that is most definitely not the case with this utterly fascinating volume from the ever-reliable Tom Service. It’s difficult to know what to praise first: the fashion in which Service conjures the very different (and often difficult) characters of the conductors involved in the variety of musical odysseys represented here. But it is not just the star names which are illuminated by Service’s lively prose – economical but vivid characterisation of everyone involved is the order of the day here. Also evoked with great skill, inter alia, is the experience of listening to great music, which is of course the raison d’être of the journeys described. But most of all it is the controversial and provocative question of just how great conductors achieve the incandescent results that they achieve with their orchestras which is the centre of the narrative here. How does Simon Rattle work with the Berlin Philharmonic? Or Mariss Jansons with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam? Or how does Claudio Abbado work his wonders every year with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra? Tom Service (who writes about music for the Guardian, and broadcasts on the subject for radio) attempts to supply the answers in this valuable book.

Music as Alchemy: Journeys with Great Conductors and their Orchestras Tom Service Faber, £18.99 hardback, £14.99 ebook

 

 

 

NEW JAMES MACMILLAN SERIES FROM CHALLENGE CLASSICS

Leading Netherlands label Challenge Classics is to release a new series of key recordings of the music of James MacMillan, all conducted by the Scottish composer himself. One of today’s most prolific and successful living composers, MacMillan is increasingly recognised internationally as a conductor of real distinction. He became Principal Guest Conductor of the Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic at the end of 2010, and this proposed four-CD recording project is part of his commitment to the Dutch orchestra.  Continue reading

French virtuoso pianist Brigitte Engerer dies at 59

PARIS — French virtuoso pianist Brigitte Engerer, known for her brilliant interpretations of French and Russian repertoire, died in Paris on Saturday at the age of 59, her agent said in a statement. Engerer “played with some of the very best”, said Concerts de Valmalete, and “brought all of her talent to what was a continual quest for musical truth”. French President Francois Hollande said in a statement he was “saddened” by the news of her death and said Engerer’s “talent… honoured France”. Engerer always “supported young musicians… while pursuing a remarkable international career”, he said. “We will all remember her great personal bravery” in “fighting the illness that took her from us.”

 

 

 

Dramatic War Requiem on SACD from LSO Live

BRITTEN WAR REQUIEM  LSO/Noseda, Soloists LSO LIVE SACD
This month is the 50th anniversary of the first performance of Britten’s War Requiem that took place at the consecration the rebuilt Coventry cathedral on 30th May 1962. When the composer’s own interpretation of his most ambitious work was enshrined by Decca the following year, it became a unique document that has never been absent from the catalogue. Since then the work has been championed by many conductors, convinced of the emotional power of this solemn and elegiac masterpiece to move audiences, and umpteen fine recordings have followed. Continue reading

Cherishable Debussy Collection on SACD

DEBUSSY: ORCHESTRAL WORKS Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Stéphane Denève CHANDOS SACD

For Stéphane Denève, the out-going musical director of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, recording this collection of Debussy’s orchestral works has obviously been a labour of love. Denève’s seven year contract with the RSNO ends this season when he becomes the chief conductor of the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra. In the liner notes accompanying this set Denève writes of his long admiration for Debussy’s music and provides illuminating insights regarding his own approach to performing it. He stresses the need for clarity, energy and rhythmic precision and eschews the idea of any impressionistic ‘blur’. How successfully he has achieved these aims is self-evident by auditioning any section of the nine compositions on these discs. Continue reading

Orpheus in Manhattan: William Schuman and the Shaping of America’s Musical Life

Orpheus in Manhattan: William Schuman and the Shaping of America’s Musical Life by Stephen Swayne/Oxford University Press £27.50

Several decades ago, a performance of a relatively modern symphonic work took place at London’s Royal Festival Hall, which created something of a stir (at least as much of a stir as a classical concert is wont to do). The piece was In Praise of Shahn by a then-living American composer, William Schuman. Continue reading

Scintillating Saint-Saens from Chandos

The Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Neeme Järvi, their indefatigable Conductor Laureate, continue their fruitful relationship for Chandos with a generously filled SACD (77′ 40”) of familiar and unfamiliar orchestral works by Saint-Saëns. Those who enjoyed the recent survey of the composer’s ballet music on Melba will find this new disc very much to their taste.
The centre pieces of this collection are the four symphonic poems that Saint-Saëns composed between 1872 and 1877 – performed on this SACD in the order of their composition. Of these only ‘Le Rouet d’Omphale’ and ‘Danse macabre’ could be regarded as at all familiar to modern audiences, but regrettably rarely appear on concert programmes today. Järvi and his orchestra lavish great care on each of these fastidiously crafted pieces. The playing in ‘Le Rouet d’Omphale’ has a pleasing Gallic delicacy and elegance, while Järvi builds ‘Phaeton’ excitingly to the climactic moment when Zeus hurls his thunderbolt – captured here with splendid impact by the vivid recording. ‘Danse macabre’ has terrific drive and benefits from the feisty violin solos of the RSNO’s leader Maya Iwabuchi. The fourth and final one of these symphonic poems, ‘La Jeunesse d’Hercule’, is also the longest and most ambitious. Perhaps its subject – the choice for Hercules between the paths of pleasure and virtue – is not quite as suited to musical depiction as the other less philosophically based symphonic poems, but Saint-Saëns manages to compile a beguiling piece of varied charms and one that allows appreciation of some ravishing playing from the RSNO strings.
The disc opens with a thrillingly frenetic account of the ‘Danse bacchanale’ from the third Act of Saint-Saëns’ opera ‘Samson et Dalila’ in which Järvi and the players of the RSNO revel in both the music’s oriental barbarism as well as its sensuality. Spirited performances of the well-known ‘Marche militaire française’ and the delicious overture to the composer’s light opera ‘La Princesse jaune’ follow before we reach the three rarities that complete the programme.
Saint-Saëns described ‘Une nuit a Lisbonne’ as ‘a little barcarolle’. It was composed in 1880 and dedicated to King Luiz of Portugal. Scored for small orchestra and lasting under four minutes it is a captivating miniature, especially when played as affectionately as here.
The Concert Overture ‘Spartacus’ dates from 1863 though the composer never published it and it languished forgotten until the 1990s. It is a fiery work with a flavour of one of Liszt’s more flamboyant symphonic poems – just the sort of piece that brings out the best in Järvi’s conducting style. The same is true of the final work on the disc – the ‘Marche du couronnement’.This splendid march, written for the coronation of Edward VII in 1902, is given a terrific performance full of swagger, appropriate Edwardian pomp and crowned with clangorous tubular bells.
The 24-bit/96 kHz 5.0 channel surround sound recording matches the high standard set on a number of recent Chandos recordings made in the ample acoustic of the Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow. It delivers a convincing orchestral image, one that also graphically conveys the acoustic signature of the recording venue. Very detailed and informative liner notes by Roger Nichols are also most welcome.
Warmly recommended.
(This review originally appeared on SA-CD.net)

Seven Classic Operas

7 Classic Operas/Various Directors/Warner Vision

To say this package of seven masterpieces of the operatic repertoire is tempting would be something of an understatement – particularly as (largely speaking) these are the best performances available of the individual works. A more recent production of Britten’s Peter Grimes has recently appeared on DVD (in anomorphic widescreen), but the definitive Jon Vickers/Colin Davis performance included here absolutely obliterates the later version in intensity. And we have a delectable set of Richard Strauss’ Arabella, meltingly sung by the American soprano Ashley Putnam, and a powerful version of Janacek’s The Makropolous Case, while Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West receives a matchless rendering by Placido Domingo and Carol Neblett. More Puccini delights can be found in Manon Lescaut with Kiri Te Kanawa. Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus is more problematic (with some graceless singing), but Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann is a delight. The discs are mostly academy ratio (rather than widescreen), but this is still a treasure trove of operatic delights.

Powerful Stravinsky, Mahler and Britten on SACD

STRAVINSKY: THE FIREBIRD COMPLETE BALLET

Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Andrew Litton/BIS SACD

If ever a composer wrote music to benefit from the astonishing aural range and dynamic impact of the super audio CD medium, it was Igor Stravinsky, particularly in his early Russian ballets. Thus far, The Rite of Spring has been handsomely represented in the medium with some splendidly exhilarating performances, but The Firebird — the work that shows more of the influence of Stravinsky’s teacher Rimsky-Korsakov — is yet to rack up similar numbers, at least in modern performances. But that situation changes with this powerful performance by Andrew Litton and the Bergen Philharmonic, which does the most consummate justice to this colourful score. The final peroration, surely one of the most uplifting passengers in all music, has rarely been captured to such exhilarating effect, though some details are recessed elsewhere. The main work is supplemented by several short arrangements by the composer, including the delightful 51-second Greeting Prelude — a piece to play in the ‘innocent ear’ fashion to friends who invariably smile when they realise what it is based on.

 

BRITTEN: SERENADE FOR TENOR HORN AND STRINGS/NOCTURNE FINZI: DIES NATALIS

Mark Padmore/Britain Sinfonia/Jacqueline Shave/Harmonia Mundi SACD

Since the original recordings by their dedicatee Peter Pears, Britten’s two masterpieces for high voice have enjoyed some exemplary recordings with a variety of singers doing full justice to these definitive realisations of some of the greatest English poetry. To that prestigious assembly must be added this new recording by Mark Padmore (in satisfyingly analytical SACD sound). Apart from the sheer beauty of his timbre, Padmore and his sympathetic accompanists have the full measure of Britten’s genius, and the readings are unlikely to be bettered for years to come.

 

DVORAK: SYMPHONY NO. 7/TONE POEMS

Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra/Claus Peter Flor/BIS SACD

A thoroughly characterful reading of one of Dvorak’s most winning symphonies – a piece which is thankfully becoming almost standard repertoire in the SACD medium. There are a host of things to praise here, not least the conductor’s unerring command of the nebulous ebb and flow of mood and colour throughout the whole canvas of the piece. This is, of course, music which simply brims with the humanity that is the hallmark of this most musically generous of composers. The Claus Peter Flor reading of the Seventh Symphony is complemented by two splendid tone poems, Othello and The Wild Dove, in performances that sport all the virtues of the main work on the recording.

 

CASTELNUOVO-TEDESCO: PIANO CONCERTOS 1 & 2/FOUR DANCES FROM LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST

Malmö Symphony Orchestra/Allesandro Marangoni/Andrew Mogrelia/Naxos

One would like to hope that the shade of the composer Castelnuovo-Tedesco is looking down from whatever nether region he inhabits, smiling on the service that Naxos is doing for his neglected music. For years, the only piece that was familiar by its composer was his charming guitar concerto (which has remained a favourite), but his influence was perhaps more felt in being a teacher of the film composer Jerry Goldsmith. This latest entry in the welcome recording from the Castelnuovo-Tedesco repertoire of his two vivid and virtuoso piano concertos, delivered with great panache by Marangoni and Mogrelia; and as with previous entries in the series, one can only wonder that the composer’s music has languished in obscurity for so long.

 

BRAHMS COMPLETE SYMPHONIES, ETC.

Helsinborg Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Manze/CPO SACD

The Brahms symphonies have been lucky in the SACD medium, but the multiplicity of fine recordings means that something new has to be brought to the table in any new initiative — which is precisely what Manze does here in these lean and dramatic readings. Those searching for more measured performances will be obliged to look elsewhere, but there is no denying that Manze’s highly accomplished forces have utilised the fruits of their research in music of an earlier era to bring a concision and focus to this durable music, producing results which are markedly unlike previous recordings in their economy.

 

CHISHOLM: PIANO CONCERTOS

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Driver/MacDonald/Hyperion

Danny Driver, partnered by Rory Macdonald and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, have furnished us with two absolute gems – the neglected piano concertos of Eric Chisholm (including a premiere recording of the exotic and tuneful ‘Hindustani’).

 

HALVORSEN: ORCHESTRAL WORKS, VOL. 4

Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Neeme Järvi/Chandos

A delightful conclusion to the Chandos project to set down the colourful orchestral works of the Norwegian composer Johan Halvorsen. The series has been ably performed by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra under Neeme Järvi. Also on the CD is Halvorsen’s orchestration of Grieg’s piano piece Norwegian Bridal Procession.

 

MAHLER: SYMPHONY NO.3

Güzenich-Orchester Köln/Stenz/Oehms SACD

This latest disc in a highly acclaimed series maintains the high standard of its predecessors, and if not a definitive Mahler 3, this is a powerful and committed reading, rendered here with a massive dynamic range.

 

GLAZUNOV COMPLETE SYMPHONIES ETC

Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Jose Serebrier/Warner Classics

There have been some estimable complete recordings of the winning and gemütlich (if conventional) symphonies of Glazunov in the past, but few have enjoyed the continuing acclaim that Serebrier has enjoyed as he has completed this survey. Heard in toto as here, it is now clear that this conductor has no rival in this repertoire, and this set — at a stroke — becomes the default choice via which to enjoy this music.

 

FALLA: WORKS FOR STAGE AND CONCERT HALL

(Nights in the Gardens of Spain; The Three-cornered Hat; Homenajes)

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano), Raquel Lojendio (soprano), BBC Philharmonic, Juanjo Mena/Chandos

Falla’s works for stage and concert hall inaugurate the Chandos label’s new Spanish series with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and Juanjo Mena. Given that the corpus of orchestral work by Falla is relatively small, it is hardly surprising that his handful of masterpieces in the idiom have been recorded many times over the years. In impressive Chandos sound, this is a particularly enjoyable entry, although some may feel that the crucial element of drama to be found in earlier performances is only fitfully present. Nevertheless, a cherishable coupling. Nights in the Gardens of Spain is among Falla’s most beguiling pieces, but most listeners’ favourite is The Three-cornered Hat, which was commissioned in 1916 by the impresario Diaghilev for his Russian ballet company, the Ballets Russes. The rarity here is the subtle Homenajes, in which Falla acknowledges fellow musicians and composers.

 

WAGNER: THE SYMPHONIC RING

Duisburger Philharmoniker, Darlington/Acousence

Described as ‘an orchestral drama in two parts’, this is a compilation and arrangement of Wagner’s score by Friedmann Dreßler, with the Duisburger Philharmoniker ably conducted by Jonathan Darlington This is the debut recording of a new version of the orchestral passages of the Ring, and if you are an admirer of the operas but do not wish to commit yourself to their entire length, this fiery and dramatic reading of the orchestral music should do the trick nicely. Such initiatives have been tackled before, but rarely as persuasively as here.

 

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: SYMPHONY NO. 2, ‘LONDON’

Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, Christopher Seaman/Harmonia Mundi SACD

After the immense success of the Richard Hickox recording in the SACD medium of this Vaughan Williams masterpiece, any new contender has to offer something very special indeed — and that is precisely what Christopher Seaman does in this remarkably powerful reading, captured in the most translucent sound. Seaman and his orchestra have the measure of every bar of this glorious music, and this is a performance to rank with the greatest renderings of the piece in the past (and the symphony has been remarkably lucky in its recording over the years). If the fill-up, the composer’s Serenade to Music, is not one of the most winning readings it has received, the ‘London’ Symphony alone makes this a truly collectible item.

 

GRIEG: STRING QUARTETS FOR CHAMBER ORCHESTRA

(String Quartet in G minor Op 27 (arr Alf Årdal); String Quartet in F major (arr Alf Årdal), etc.)

Oslo Camerata, Stephan Barratt-Due/Naxos

These are sensitive expansions, designed to show off the virtues of chamber orchestras, more ready these days to accept quartet expansions into their repertoire. There are those who still set their faces against orchestration for larger ensembles of string quartet music, and it must be acknowledged that the composer’s intentions are sometimes lost in such transcriptions. But there are considerable gains to be found in the more sensitive and alert expansions such as those to be found on this delightful disc, which is distinguished by playing of charm and authority.

 

DVORAK STRING QUINTET IN G, ETC.

Berlin Philharmonic String Quintet/Pentatone

Wonderfully pointed and sensitive readings of one of the Czech composer’s most glorious chamber music pieces; not an-overgenerous playing time, but few will complain, given the sensitivity and understanding of the playing on offer here.

 

SIBELIUS SYMPHONIES 2 & 5

Minnesota Orchestra, Osmo Vänskä/BIS SACD

The ghost of the composer Sibelius must be looking down on the BIS label from wherever he is, smiling benignly at the fact that this recording company has shown such an admirable level of commitment towards one of the greatest modern composers (immensely influential, of course on such British composers as Vaughan Williams). Having already completed an admirable survey of Sibelius’ music, BIS is committing to disc another symphonic cycle, this time in quite glorious surround sound. The performances here are full of grace and poise rather than adrenalin, but this is a perfectly valid approach, and proves remarkably fecund in these complex and fascinating scores. It is worth saying that with the standard BIS recording quality (which is to say exemplary), Sibelius’s Second Symphony has never been set down with such fidelity.

 

MAHLER SYMPHONY NO.9

Badische Staatskapelle Karlsruhe, Justin Brown/Pan Classics SACD

One of the oldest orchestras in Germany, the Badische Staatskapelle. Karlsruhe, is a splendid ensemble which was formed in 1662 as the court orchestra in the Margrave residence at Durlach in Baden and became an ensemble with an imposing reputation. Within the realm of the super audio CD, there is now a wide range of choice for Mahler’s final complete symphonic utterance, so that any new performance must offer something distinctive and individual. That is precisely what we are given here (under the unfamiliar conductor Justin Brown) in a sound stage that has all the requisite heft and detail.

 

KORNGOLD: STRING SEXTET IN D MAJOR, OP. 10; PIANO QUINTET IN E MAJOR, OP. 15

Doric String Quartet; Jennifer Stumm (viola), Bartholomew LaFollette (cello) Kathryn Stott (piano)/Chandos

Erich Wolfgang Korngold was lionised as a child prodigy by Mahler, Strauss and Puccini, and his work was regularly performed before his career led him to become one of the definitive Hollywood composers. He composed his Sextet for Strings between 1914 and 1916, simultaneously with his opera Violanta, All of the composer’s individual fingerprints are to be found here in pleasurable form — with, inevitably, the echoes of Richard Strauss that are never far away in this composer’s music. Those who came to Korngold via his glorious film music decades ago had far less choice then when it came to the composer’s chamber works, which are now appearing in splendid performances such as this. The premiere of the Quintet for Two Violins, Viola, Cello, and Piano took place in Hamburg in 1923 with the composer at the keyboard. The writing here is of a virtuoso nature.

 

MUSIC FROM THE MACHINE AGE

(BARTOK Miraculous Mandarin Suite; HOLST Ballet music from The Perfect Fool; RAVEL La Valse; PROKOFIEV Scythian Suite; SCHULHOFF Ogelala excerpts)

Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra, Sascha Goetzel/Onyx

Powerful fare from Sascha Goetzel and the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra in this distinctive follow-up to their acclaimed debut recording of Respighi, Florent Schmitt and Hindemith. Given its immense, atavistic power it is something of a mystery that Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite (with its dramatic, bare-faced echoes of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring) is not heard more often. If the performance here is not the equal in sheer barbaric energy of the classic DGG recording by Claudio Abbado, it is nevertheless impressive, and forms an intriguing facet of this curious collection of disparate pieces.

 

BERIO: ORCHESTRAL REALISATIONS OF SCHUBERT, BRAHMS, AND MAHLER

(Schubert: Rendering; Brahms: Clarinet Sonata: Mahler: Six Early Songs)

Roderick Williams (baritone), Michael Collins (clarinet), Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Edward Gardner

Chandos SACD

Berio’s concern for balancing the past and the present bore fruit in his orchestral realisations of works by Mahler and Brahms, such as Rendering (1990), the later composer’s typically creative completion of unfinished symphonic sketches by Schubert. For many years the view that listeners had of Berio was as a relatively accessible modernist, with his much-played Sinfonia the signature work for the composer. That view is being altered somewhat in recent years, not least because of the appreciation we are gaining of his skills as an orchestrator of music from an earlier era, as is to be found in this rather strange, sometimes pawky, but always intriguing collection.

 

BRITTEN: VIOLIN CONCERTO AND DOUBLE CONCERTO

Anthony Marwood, Lawrence Power; BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Ilan Volkov/Hyperion

This is as poetic a performance of Britten’s Violin Concerto as one is likely to hear, but perhaps the real selling point here is the equally remarkable reading of a far-less familiar piece, the composer’s Double Concerto. The neglect of the latter piece is perhaps unsurprising, given that it is far slower to unveil its charms than the violin-only work . But in a performance as thoroughly considered as this, it begins to seem very much like a masterpiece. Anthony Marwood is the capable soloist in the Violin Concerto. He is joined by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Ilan Volkov and Lawrence Power in the Double Concerto. Lawrence also performs Britten’s Lachrymae (in its orchestral guise).

 

TCHAIKOVSKY: SYMPHONY NO.5; PIQUE DAME OVERTURE

Gürzenich-Orchester Köln, Kitajenko/Oehms

The accomplished Gurzenich-Orchester Koln is one of Germany’s leading orchestras, both on the concert platform and in the opera house. As with the symphonic works of Mahler, the symphonies of Piotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky have been extremely well represented in the SACD medium in recent years, but this is one of the most thoroughly idiomatic performances that the Fifth Symphony has received from the always persuasive Kitajenko.

 

GRIEG/RACHMANINOV PIANO CONCERTOS

(Grieg Piano Concerto in A minor; Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor Op.18)

Sa Chen, piano, Orquestra Gulbenkian, cond. Foster/Pentatone SACD

Sa Chen here gives serviceable performance (in splendid SACD sound) of two concerto warhorses. The Pentatone label seems to have cornered the market in surround sound recordings of the great concertos, but it was perhaps inevitable that their unbroken series of definitive recordings would inevitably move down from the Parnassian slopes — as here. These performances (while eminently musical) perhaps lack that final ounce of passionate commitment to be found in so many other concerti recordings on the Pentatone label. Nevertheless, a case can be made for these readings of two thoroughly musical performances, recorded in customary Pentatone splendour.

 

LISZT: TONE POEMS/HUNGARIAN RHAPSODIES

London Philharmonic, Orchestra de Paris, Solti, Fischer/Eloquence

Liszt’s orchestral music does not enjoy the popularity of the corpus of work he inspired, the tone poems of Richard Strauss, but if performances as colourful and committed as those on offer here (hopefully) achieve wider currency, that position might change. Fischer and Solti are the best possible advocates for this characterful music, and the remastering of the recordings has the orchestral detail coming up fresh as paint. These performances are part of the ‘Decca Sound’ and have previously only been available as part of the Decca (limited) Liszt edition.

 

POÉMES: RAVEL, MESSIAEN & DUTILLEUX

Renée Fleming, Orchestre National de France, Gibert, Ozawa/Decca

A sensual album of 20th century French vocal masterpieces, built around Ravel’s Shéhérazade. The revelation here is Olivier Messiaen’s collection of love songs to his young wife, the Poèmes pour Mi – this performance will convert many to the piece. Henri Dutilleux’s Le Temps l’horloge was written for Renée Fleming by this doyen of current French composers. The album is completed by two earlier songs by Dutilleux, orchestrated for this album and recorded in the presence of the composer. It is something of a gift to lovers of exquisite soprano singing that Renee Fleming enjoys such attention from record companies. And as there are only so many times she can record arias from Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier or his Four Last Songs, it is a cause for celebration that she is recording some unusual repertoire, as here. What’s more, the performances make such previously intractable pieces as the Messiaen cycle seem a natural development from the writing of Ravel, also represented here.

 

WAGNER ORCHESTRAL WORKS, VOL. 5

(Symphony in C; Symphony in E; Huldigungsmarsch/Kaisermarsch: Overture to ‘Rienzi’)

Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Neeme Järvi/Chandos SACD

The Chandos series of works by Richard Wagner, performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Neeme Järvi, continues with a disc of early symphonies, later marches, and the Overture to Rienzi. Even the composer’s most committed advocates would hardly argue that this is essential Wagner, but it is hard to imagine a more persuasive case made for these neglected symphonies.

 

BENJAMIN/ LUCAS: FILM MUSIC

Benjamin: The Conquest of Everest/The Man Who Knew Too Much, etc. Lucas: The Dam Busters, etc.

Abigail Sara (mezzo-soprano), Catherine Roe-Williams (piano), Rob Court (organ), Côr Caerdydd (choir), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Rumon Gamba/Chandos

The Chandos series of recordings of British film music is one of the company’s most welcome ongoing projects, and (as this particular disc reminds us) it is not just the more celebrated names such as Vaughan Williams who did splendid service for the cinema. The most familiar piece here is Lucas’ The Dam Busters, but it is also intriguing to hear (in full) the Storm Clouds Cantata by Benjamin, used for the Albert Hall sequences in both versions of Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (there is, regrettably some distinctly shaky singing on the latter, but this is the merest caveat when considering a truly enjoyable disc). Incidentally, Arthur Benjamin composed the Storm Clouds Cantata in 1934 for Hitchcock’s first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much. In the 1956 colour remake of the film, a new score was composed by Bernard Herrmann, who was offered the opportunity to write his own music for the film’s climax. Uncharacteristically, however, he said that he could not improve upon Benjamin’s cantata, so it stayed.

 

BRAHMS: WORKS FOR CHORUS AND ORCHESTRA

Ann Hallenberg, Collegium Vocale Gent, Orchestre des Champs-Elysées; Philippe Herreweghe/PHI

Critical encomiums have been showered upon this recording of Brahms’ choral music, and it is not hard to see why. Perhaps the Janet Baker recording of the Alto Rhapsody remains unchallenged, but everything else on this disc receives a nigh-definitive performance, notably the Song of Destiny.

 

BALAKIREV SYMPHONIC WORKS

USSR State Academic Symphony Orchestra, Svetlanov/Melodiya

For those enamoured of colourful Russian orchestral music, here is an attractively presented two-disc set of largely unfamiliar work. Balakirev was a celebrated Russian musician, pianist, conductor and composer. All his symphonic works are brought together in chronological sequence. The works include Overtures on the themes of three Russian songs, King Lear and the Suite for Orchestra. All are performed by the USSR State Academic Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Svetlanov.

 

DVORAK: SYMPHONIES 7 & 8, ORCHESTRAL WORKS

Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Jose Serebrier/Warner Classics

After the great success of the Glazunov cycle by this conductor, he demonstrates equal sympathy and understanding for the great Czech symphonist. The sheer affection and enthusiasm for the scores here shines through in every bar, and the set is made more desirable with the inclusion of several shorter works.

 

STRIGGIO: MASS FOR 40 AND 60 VOICES

Le Concert Spirtuel, Hervé Niquet/Glossa

Allesandro Striggio’s Mass for 40 and 60 Voices is music to transport the listener into a calmer world, delivered with great sensitivity by Niquet and his forces.

 

ANDRAE: SYMPHONY, ETC.

Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Marc Andrae/Guild

What a find this is! Who would have thought such energetic, utterly winning music remained to be discovered — and what’s more, delivered with the kind of enthusiasm that communicates itself so winningly. No doubt the familial collection between conductor and composer helped, but the musicianship on offer here is truly cherishable. For the adventurous listener, this is one to invest in.

 

CHABRIER: LE ROI MALGRE LUI

RAMEAU: DARDANUS

Various orchestras, Charles Dutoit and Raymond Leppard, conductors/Teldec

The Teldec reissue series of celebrated performances of a variety of operas is proving to be a very useful way of reacquainting oneself with some splendid work, such as these two neglected pieces — here given committed and allusive performances by Charles Dutoit and Raymond Leppard. The singing on both sets is nonpareil.

 

DEBUSSY: SONGS VOL. 2

Lorna Anderson/Lisa Milne/Malcolm Martineau/Hyperion

Two of Britain’s key exponents of French chansons, the celebrated sopranos Lorna Anderson and Lisa Milne, are partnered by Malcolm Martineau for this delicious second volume of Hyperion’s project of Debussy’s exquisite songs.

 

MAHLER SYMPHONY NO.7 IN E MINOR

Bamberger Symphoniker, Nott/Tudor SACD

Jonathan Nott and the Bamberger Symphoniker continue with a valuable series. Mahler’s Seventh Symphony remains the one piece in the composer’s symphonic cycle that poses problems for both executants and listeners — but all of its problems are solved here in a recording that has the full measure of Mahler’s unorthodox genius

 

BRITTEN: WAR REQUIEM

London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Soloists/Gianandrea Noseda/LSO Live SACD

In the surround sound medium, Richard Hickox’s nonpareil performance of this dramatic masterpiece has held sway for several years, but here is a recording which challenges the supremacy of the earlier set. Noseda is enjoying immense acclaim for his live performances (notably in the opera house), so it is perhaps no surprise that he brings out every element of the drama to be found in the massive War Requiem. In some ways this is the most affecting and emotionally draining reading the work has ever received — and that includes the premiere recording by Britten itself, which established a high benchmark for many years. This is a considerable achievement.

 

MARCO BELTRAMI: THE WOMAN IN BLACK

Original soundtrack/Silva Screen

There is a cadre of highly efficient composers of soundtracks at work today, utilising elements of the 19th century symphony orchestra along with modern techniques and electronics. One of the most proficient is Marco Beltrami, who manages to incorporate exuberant (even operatic) effects into his scores. Such elements would not be a propos here, as most of the music required for this adaptation of Susan Hill’s unsettling novel is slow and atmospheric, so Beltrami enjoys few opportunities to raise the roof in his customary manner. Nevertheless, his professionalism is always on show.