New Handel and Vivaldi from Harmonia Mundi

Harmonia Mundi have announced the April release of La Nuova Musica’s recording of Handel & Vivaldi’s Dixit Dominus, as well as Vivaldi’s in furore iustissimae irae, sung by  Lucy Crowe. David Bates leads La Nuova Musica in a pair of contrasting settings of Psalm 109. Handel’s masterful and ambitious HWV 282 was penned in 1707 during a youthful visit to Italy. Vivaldi’s vivid and economical RV 807 was long mistakenly attributed to Baldassare Galupp. Rounding out the programme is Vivaldi’s dazzling motet for solo voice, in furore iustissimae irae, featuring soprano Lucy Crowe.


Signum Classics Celebrating Britten

The award-winning independent label Signum Classics prepares its celebrations of the Britten Centenary with 4 new releases in 2013. Complementing virtuoso cellist Matthew Barley’s ‘Around Britten’ tour, a key event of the Britten 100 celebrations in 2013, the new release Around Britten | Matthew Barley showcases Britten’s Cello Suite No. 3, alongside works by Bryars and Tavener; music that Barley will be performing live at venues across the country throughout the year. On iTunes, the album will continue to grow and accumulate tracks for free throughout the year as the commissioned world-premieres featured in the tour are recorded along with additional tracks.



AMERICAN MAVERICKS San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Michael Tilson-Thomas SACD SFS Media 0056  My dictionary defines a maverick as ‘an unorthodox or independent-minded person’ and one could not find a better description for each of the three composers featured on this stimulating and superbly recorded SACD from SFS Media. America has produced many such mavericks over the past century and the list could be extended to include Charles Ives, Lukas Foss, Ruggles, Steve Reich, John Cage, John Adams and many more. Henry Cowell (1897-1965), whose 1930 piece ‘Synchrony’ opens this disc, is most associated with the invention of the term “tone clusters” in which the piano is played with the fingers, the fist or forearm to produce terrifyingly dissonant chords. ‘Synchrony’, however, opens with a long (3 minute) trumpet solo, fluently played by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra’s principal trumpet, before the full orchestra enters with music that bears a striking resemblance to that which opens Part 2 of Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’. The music becomes more animated and inventive as textures thicken yet Michael Tilson Thomas and his superb orchestra perform this complex and imaginative piece with absolute confidence almost as if it was standard repertoire. The audience respond with warm, though not effusive, applause. Cowell’s ‘Piano Concerto’ is a tougher nut to crack. Its three short movements entitled: I Polyharmony, II Tone Cluster, III Counter Rhythm each feature a virtuoso piano part brilliantly played here by Jeremy Denk. In the concerto’s central movement it is easy to spot the influence of Cowell’s work on Bartok’s writing for the piano while the spiky finale extends the conflict between soloist and orchestra to the ultimate degree before reaching amusing resolution in the final triumphant bars that bring a well-deserved enthusiastic audience response.The most spectacular work on this disc is the ‘Concert for Organ and Percussion Orchestra’ by Lou Harrison (1917-2003). Harrison studied with Cowell in San Francisco (1943-4) and also with Schoenberg in Los Angeles, but though his music does embrace serial techniques he is essentially a melodist. Many of Harrison’s compositions from the 1930’s onwards feature the use of percussion instruments and reflect the composer’s interest in Javanese and Balinese gamelan music. This thrilling five-movement concerto delights the ear with exotic sounds – boisterous in the outer movements and contemplative in the three central ones. Paul Jacobs makes a fine sound on the Davies Symphony Hall organ, and it is particularly gratifying to note that the audience restrain their excited response to the performance until the concerto’s final note has faded completely into silence. Strictly speaking Edgar Varèse (born in Paris in 1883) is not an “American Maverick” though most of his major compositions were written after he had emigrated to the United States in 1915, and he did take American citizenship twelve years later. His orchestral work ‘Amériques’ (performed here in its revised version of 1927) is probably the most well-known piece on this disc and over the years has received many recorded performances. It is extravagantly scored for a large orchestra requiring nine percussionists and the instrumentation includes a siren. The music shows both the influences of, and debt to, both Debussy and Stravinsky in its orchestration yet is wholly original. MTT’s impeccably executed performance emphasises both the work’s sensuous beauty and disturbing savagery captured in recorded sound of the utmost clarity and presence.Though some will find most of this music to be challenging (the antithesis of ‘easy listening’ ), it certainly rewards those prepared to make the effort, and it would be hard to imagine better performances or recorded sound than what we have here. Give your ears and audio system a thorough work-out with this SACD – you will not be disappointed.

Pentatone, BIS and CPO Shine in January

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.








This England: Vaughan Williams, Britten and Elgar

THIS ENGLAND: VAUGHAN WILLIAMS/ELGAR/BRITTEN: SYMPHONY NO.5/COCKAIGNE/FOUR SEA INTERLUDES Oregon Symphony Orchestra, Carlos Kalmar/Pentatone PTC 518647 SACD  The previous release from Carlos Kalmar and the Oregon Symphony Orchestra was something quite special  and if this new SACD doesn’t quite measure up to the earlier disc it is no fault of the conductor, the orchestra or the excellent recording from the Soundmirror team. It is simply that each of the works featured here faces considerable competition from the many versions currently available on CD. Kalmar has already demonstrated his considerable empathy with English music and once again his performances here are immaculately prepared and executed marvellously by his Oregon players. Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture (In London Town) making a welcome first appearance on SACD is a total success. This tricky piece presents no problems for Kalmar who confidently negotiates the many varied and frequently changing moods in this work. The orchestra responds enthusiastically to his direction while the recording thrillingly captures the visceral slam of the bass drum and the rasp of the rich Oregon brass. The 5th Symphony of Vaughan Williams dates from 1938 and is closely related to the composer’s opera ‘A Pilgrim’s Progress’. It uses material from the opera in three of its four movements and its predominantly modal style and restrained lyricism presents special challenges for conductors.
Kalmar’s performance is beautifully controlled and deeply felt (tempi are closer to those of Boult than Haitink ). Perhaps overall it lacks a little of the sense of tranquillity found in some of the finest versions of the work – especially the one by André Previn and the LSO from the 1970s – but nevertheless Kalmar’s assimilation of, and engagement with, this music is self evident. The central rhapsodic ‘Romanza’ features some lovely solos from cor anglais, violin, viola and horn, so it is unfortunate that a cough some two minutes into the movement disturbs the mood of rapt serenity that Kalmar has so carefully achieved.
‘Dawn’, the first of the ‘Four Sea Interludes’ from Britten’s opera ‘Peter Grimes’, also suffers from a small amount of unwelcome audience participation, though again this will only be of concern to the hypersensitive listener. Kalmar’s account of these interludes is masterly and it is pleasing to see that he has included the ‘Passacaglia’ from Act 2 of the opera whose theme is the music for Grimes’ tortured cry of ‘…and God have mercy upon me!’ earlier in the same Act. His slow-burn approach to this piece pays dividends as it builds to a searing climax. The graphic final ‘Storm’ has a convincing vehemence and urgency. The works on this SACD were recorded at public performances in Portland on February18 and 19 2012 (Vaughan Williams and Elgar) and May12,13 and 14 (Britten). As I have indicated the engineers have achieved a vivid and realistic sound quality in spite of the difficulties of live recording. Orchestral detail is exceptionally clear whilst timpani and percussion are especially well reproduced. A clear recommendation is warranted.