JANACEK: GLAGOLITIC MASS; TARAS BULBA Soloists/Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester & Chor Berlin/Pentatone PTC 5186388 SACD An absolute winner. This ear-tickling SACD offers some of the most celebrated works by Leoš Janaček. The Glagolitic Mass is one of the great modern choral pieces, with its dramatic organ sections, while the ‘rhapsody for orchestra’ Taras Bulba (with its unique, very personal chaacrter) is a calling-card piece for the composer. The wide-ranging super audio recording mode offers a degree of aural realism not to be found in any rival medium, but is shown to particular advantage in large-scale orchestral choral pieces – which is very much the case with these masterpieces by Janacek. Every detail is present, from the most delicate touch of orchestration to the most overwhelming of climaxes. If Janowski does not find the final ounce of Czech-inflected drama in the pieces in the fashion in which Charles Mackerras did (and the organ, though spectacular, perhaps lacks the attack of that on the Mackerras disc), few will complain given the quality of the recording which — at a stroke — becomes definitive.
BARBER: CONCERTO FOR CELLO AND ORCHESTRA/SONATA FOR CELLO AND PIANO/ADAGIO FOR STRINGS Christian Poltéra, Kathryn Stott/Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Andrew Litton BIS SACD1827 With this utterly persuasive reading of the two masterpieces for cello by Samuel Barber, it might be said that the domination of fashion in serious music by composers of the serial school has now had a final rebalancing, so that modern composers who did not eschew conventional harmony (while remaining contemporary) are now achieving the recognition – and concomitant slew of recordings – that are their due (Barber in the US, Walton and Arnold in this country). Barber’s Cello Concerto is one of the great works in the repertoire, and represents the perfect balance between sinewy strength and lyrical beauty, here realised with great sensitivity by Christian Poltéra – as is the composer’s Cello Sonata, given an equally authoritative reading. If one has a caveat, it is the inclusion of the unavoidable Adagio for Strings — sensitively realised here in exemplary surround sound, but is it absolutely necessary that virtually every recording of Barber’s music includes this piece? There cannot be an admirer of the composer who doesn’t have umpteen versions already. Enough!
SUPPÉ: OVERTURES, ETC. Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Neeme Järvi CHANDOS SACD CHSA 5110 Franz von Suppé made his mark as a composer for the stage, and for forty years there was rarely a year without a new stage work from him. While most of his operas and operettas have vanished from sight, his energetic and striking overtures (in Offenbach style) are as popular as ever. Highlights on the splendid SACD include the overtures to Poet and Peasant (the composer’s most familiar piece, along with the imperishable Light Cavalry).
JENSEN: ORCHESTRAL WORKS Trondheim Symphony Orchestra, Eivind Aadland CPO (2) 777347-2 A very welcome double-disc release of Ludvig Irgens Jensen’s key orchestral works with the impressive Trondheim Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Eivind Aadland. Jensen’s colourful, winning scores deserve to be far better known outside his native Norway, and there is an argument that his best music at time rivals that of his celebrated contemporaries Sibelius and Nielsen, if lacking their genius.
BRITTEN: CELLO SYMPHONY, CELLO SONATA AND CELLO SUITES Alban Gerhrdt, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Andrew Manze Hyperion (2) CDA67941/2 A key release to inaugurate Britten’s anniversary celebrations. The composer’s friendship with cellist Mstislav Rostropovich produced some splendid music, including some of the most impressive pieces for cello of the twentieth century. Alban Gerhardt performs this body of works in its entirety. In the Cello Sonata he is partnered by Steven Osborne, whose Hyperion recording of Britten’s Piano Concerto received a Gramophone Award. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Andrew Manze join Gerhardt for the Cello Symphony.
RESPIGHI: MARIE VICTOIRE Soloists, Orchester der Deutsche Oper Berlin, Michail Jurowski PO CPO 777684-2 A must for Respighians, this 2009 recording from the German Opera Berlin of Respighi’s Marie Victoire, a neglected opera set against the backdrop of the French Revolution, usefully fills a gap. This recently rediscovered piece showcases the impressive young American soprano Takesha Meshe Kizart in the role of Marie. Admirers of the composer’s operas will be aware that his forte is not long flowing lines of melody à la Puccini – or – for that matter, even the glittering orchestration that distinguishes his own tone poems. But Respighi’s approach to opera is utterly his own, and the synthesis of music and libretto is as rigorous as one is likely to encounter in the medium. In fact, Marie Victoire is one of his most dramatic compositions, and could well be the perfect piece with which to approach the composer’s enigmatic contribution to this very Italian art form.
ELGAR: ENIGMA VARIATIONS/VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: THE WASPS/FANTASIA on GREENSLEEVES Kansas City Symphony/Michael Stern reference RR-129 When Andre Previn inaugurated his much-acclaimed cycle of Vaughan Williams symphonies for RCA several decades ago, there were those who remarked upon the temerity of an American-born conductor taking on such English works. From almost every point of view, this obscurantist attitude was wrongheaded — not least because RVW, as one of the great modern composers, could hardly be said to belong to any one country. What’s more, the American conductor proved to be a truly nonpareil advocate of the composer, fully the equal of such British champions of Vaughan Williams as Adrian Boult. History might be said to repeat itself in these utterly splendid American performances of Elgar and Vaughan Williams, with Michael Stern adopting an utterly persuasive approach to this music, stressing (if anything) its internationalism. What makes the disc particularly cherishable is the typically luxurious 24-bit sound quality afforded by Prof Johnson, the éminence grise of Reference Recordings – though it remains a cause for regret that the company has sidelined its spectacular SACD programme.
WAGNER: TANNHAUSER Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin/Rundfunkchor Berlin/Pentatone PTC 5186405 SACD The sixth instalment of PentaTone’s much-acclaimed Wagner Edition continues the exemplary work of its predecessors. The project represents the first time in the recording history that a label has put on disc all major Wagner operas with the same orchestra, choir and conductor. Tannhauser has been well served on disc, and if this new performance does not quite unseat such earlier rivals as the classic Decca Solti set, it is a wholly admirable and idiomatic performance, utilising the SACD medium to the full.
SZYMANOWSKI: SYMPHONY NO. 2 & 4 ‘SYMPHONIE CONCERTANTE’/CONCERT OVERTURE Louis Lortie, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Edward Gardner CHANDOS CHSA 5115 This vivid and idiomatic recording of orchestral works by Karol Szymanowski is part of the Polish Music initiative on Chandos, and enjoys thoroughly committed readings by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Edward Gardner. Szymanowski’s early works bear the fingerprints of Wagner and (in particular) Richard Strauss, and the engaging Concert Overture could well be by the latter composer. It sounds splendid in Chandos surround sound. There is a difficult-to-obtain BeArton SACD of the 4th Symphony (conducted by Jerzy Maksymiuk) which has marginally more clarity and dynamism, but in lieu of that elusive disc, this new one is a clear winner.