Conrad Tao’s debut full-length album Voyages using iPad

Courtesy of EMI, a ground-breaking composition, from 18-year-old American pianist/composer Conrad Tao’s debut full-length album Voyages (out on June 3rd ), features Conrad using the Reactable Mobile app on his Apple iPad, incorporating both synth lines and real-time processing of his piano playing, via the iPad microphone. Conrad describes the piece as being inspired by the phenomenon of “fractured light, that appears differently depending on what angle you look at it from,” while also incorporating the concept of modern technology and its ever-changing development.  Continue reading

Superlative Sibelius from Vänskä

SIBELIUS: SYMPHONIES 1 & 4  Minnesota Orchestra, Osmo Vänskä/BIS -1996 SACD Osmo Vänskä’s reputation as arguably the foremost living interpreter of Sibelius will be further enhanced by this second volume of his fine Sibelius Symphony cycle with the Minnesota Orchestra. The earlier release of Symphonies 2 and 5 highlighted the conductor’s quite individual approach to these works, born of long familiarity with them. Vänskä delivers lithe, fast moving accounts of each of the 1st Symphony’s four movements in which clear lines and crisp articulation are paramount. Continue reading

‘Deeply moving’ Mahler from Albrecht

MAHLER: DAS LIED VON DER ERDE Soloists,Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, Marc Albrect/PentaTone 5186 802 SACD  This is Marc Albrecht’s first recording with the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra since he became their chief conductor in 2011. He is also musical director of the Netherlands Opera, and the benefits of his wide experience working with singers in the field of opera as well as in the concert hall are apparent in this fine new recording of Mahler’s ‘Das Lied von der Erde’. Albrecht opens the first song ‘ Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde’, a bitter and epicurean drinking song, with considerable vehemence and drive, though some listeners may be disturbed by his exhortations to the orchestra both here and in other climactic moments later in the work. Continue reading


PROKOFIEV: SYMPHONY NO. 6, etc. Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrew Litton BIS SACD 1994  Though one can speculate as to how much Prokofiev’s declining health and his experiences during the Second World War had on his state of mind when he completed  his 6th Symphony in 1947, there is little doubt that it was profound. The 6th Symphony is the most personal and deeply felt of his seven, yet it has never achieved anything like the popularity of Symphonies 1 and 5. The depth of the symphony’s emotional range and pervading tragic nature as well as its complexity, has perhaps mitigated against its general acceptance by concert goers, but fortunately it has fared much better on disc. Continue reading

Coruscating Respighi, Forceful Mahler on Chandos and PentaTone

Respighi jacket

RESPIGHI: CHURCH WINDOWS; METAMORPHOSEON, ROMAN FESTIVALS; FOUNTAINS OF ROME; PINES OF ROME; BELKIS, QUEEN OF SHEBA; BRAZILIAN IMPRESSIONS Philharmonia Orchestra, Geoffrey Simon, Philharmonia Orchestra, Yan Pascal Tortelier/CHANDOS 241-45  First of all, it’s important to state that this set is a generous and sensible way to collect some of Respighi’s most glorious music. Let’s get a caveat out of the way. Of all twentieth century composers, Respighi — with his astonishing gift for opulent orchestration — is best served by super audio surround sound, and it is perhaps a cause for regret that Chandos – masters of the SACD medium – recorded these pieces before they had committed fully to the multi-channel option. One can only hope that new performances from a company supplement these older ones, but in the meantime these colourful, characterful readings are fine to be getting on with. The ‘Roman Trilogy’ is undoubtedly Respighi’s signature work, and is here the centrepiece of a delectable collection. Fountains of Rome and Pines of Rome feature of four discrete sections, each portraying a particular fountain, or pine grove, in Rome, at a specific time of day. The final work in the trilogy, Roman Festivals, is inspired by four Rome-based festivals. But admired of Respighi  esteem his Church Windows, an orchestral version his Three Piano Preludes on Gregorian Melodies. The preludes were published in 1922, and orchestrated three years later, Respighi adding one further movement, creating a symphonic suite. But one of the composer’s most original scores is for Belkis, Queen of Sheba which conjures the odyssey undertaken in the year 1000 B.C. by Belkis, the Queen of Sheba, in answer to a summons from from Solomon, the King of Israel. The lengthy ballet called for a massive orchestra including such unconventional instruments as sitars and wind machines, a chorus and vocal soloists, and a narrator to relate the story in verse.  One is happy to forego the narration, but it’s a source of regret that we are only ever give the shorter purely orchestral suite, which is what is recorded here.

SIBELIUS: SYMPHONY NO. 1 IN E MINOR OP. 39; SYMPHONY NO. 4 IN A MINOR OP. 63 Minnesota Orchestra, Osmo Vänskä/ BIS1996 SACD  The mark of a distinguished performance is to render the music – however familiar it may be to the listener – as fresh as paint, with a host of new insights opened in prismatic fashion. That is very much the case when listening to Sibelius’s First Symphony in a performance as authoritative as is granted here (and, what’s more, with a recording quality that places the disc among the most impressive readings the Symphony has ever received). The Minnesota Orchestra and its music director Osmo Vänskä have already set down Symphonies Nos. 2 & 5 (BISSACD1986), powerfully characterised but controversial readings, and make a far more persuasive case for the music in this follow-up disc.

MAHLER: DAS LIED VON DER ERDE Alice Coote, Fritz Burkhard, Netherlands Philharmonic, Marc Albrecht/Pentatone PTC 5186502  There are those who consider Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde his supreme achievement, and a truly visionary performance such as that given by Marc Albrecht and his forces here will have many listeners weighing that verdict anew. This is not the first performance of the work on SACD, but it is comfortably the most persuasive so far, with soloists who are fully in tune with the conductor’s vision of the piece, though the voices may be set back a little far in the orchestral mix for some tastes. If Alice Coote, intelligent and richly characterised though her performances is, cannot quite find the nuances that Janet Baker found in the female songs, that is to judge the younger singer by the very highest standards. But in her own terms, this is a considerable achievement for Coote, and the final haunting valedictory sequence is immensely affecting.

BACH: DOUBLE & TRIPLE CONCERTOS Rachel Podger & Brecon Baroque, Channel Classics/CCSSA34113  SACD Two things are conspicuous on this very winning Bach coupling: the effortless musicality (always worn insouciantly) and the sheer unbuttoned joie de vivre which communicates itself to the listener so consistently. Podger’s earlier disc of Bach concerti gleaned considerable acclaim, and there is absolutely no reason why its successor should not win as many friends. The ensemble Brecon Baroque was founded in 2007 by violinist and director Rachel Podger as resident ensemble at her annual Brecon Baroque Festival. The players includes of some of key names in the period-instrument world, including cellist Alison McGillivray, flautist Katy Bircher, oboist Alexandra Bellamy and violist Jane Rogers.

WAGNER: DAS RHEINGOLD Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester & Rundfunkchor Berlin, Marek Janowski/Pentatone PTC 5186406 2 SACD  Even in the era when it might have been held that Solti’s classic Decca set of Wagner’s Ring was something of a gold standard for the operas, there were those who extolled the virtues of rival sets. And with many new contenders over the years, the situation has become even more complicated – but nowadays there is at least one factor which can be adduced when discussing new sets of the Ring operas — the contemporary use of wide-ranging surround sound, an element which adds an extra dimension of musical drama, not to mention decisively widening the dynamic range of the orchestral panoply. If this review approaches this splendid new PentaTone Rheingold from such a perspective (rather than considering the singers,) that is because the sheer impact of the sound is so breathtaking. And taking that factor into account, the fact that the extremely capable cast cannot quite match the nonpareil qualities of Solti’s singers, the compensations are vast – and those collecting Janowski’s Ring need not hesitate in picking up this latest addition.

DVORAK: SEXTET IN A MAJOR OP. 48, STRING TRIOS OP. 74 & 75/TACET SACD 196 S4009850019640  There are those who might regard Tacet’s unorthodox recording technique – placing the listener dead centre in the surround sound picture — as something of a gimmick, but once the initial surprise has worn off, the tactic can be regarded as both totally immersive (the listener virtually becomes part of the recording) and, in fact, as musically justified as the separation of the individual instrumental strands allows for a truly balanced and judicious examination of such elements as harmony and counterpoint. That is very much the case with this new recording, but the device would not be defensible unless it worked within the context of such sensitive performances of the Dvorak chamber pieces as those to be found here.

RICHARD STRAUSS: DIE SCHWEIGSAME FRAU CPO Hawlata, Straube, Kindschuh, Berchtold, Bauer, Yang, Penttinen, Winter, Räsänen, Gäbler, Chor des Oper Chemnitz, Robert-Schumann-Philharmonie, Frank Beermann CPO 777757-2 (3 CDs)  There was a time when Strauss’s lesser-known operas were difficult to track down, and admirers of the composer were led a merry dance in attempting to complete their collections. Fortunately, such eras of musical famine are in the past, as this new recording of blank reminds us. If the essential strangeness of the piece (the opera is full of delights, but has a kind of pawkiness at its centre) is not quite wrangled into the most sympathetic form here, the musical characterisation is as pointed and lively as one might wish. Few Straussians will argue with the fact that the conductor has made the best possible case for this under-regarded opera; it will never enjoy the popularity of Der Rosenkavalier, but deserves a more central place in the repertoire (and on CD shelves) than it currently enjoys.

BRITTEN: VIOLIN CONCERTO, PIANO CONCERTO Tasmin Little (violin), Howard Shelley (piano), BBC Philharmonic, Edward Gardner/CHANDOS 10764  Whatever performances you may already possess of Britten’s highly approachable piano and violin concertos, be prepared to entertain these felicitous new versions. In many ways, these latest contenders rival – and even surpass – their predecessors (and both pieces have been lucky in the recording studios). Before his groundbreaking operatic breakthrough with Peter Grimes in 1945, Britten was principally known as a composer of instrumental music. To coincide with the 100-year anniversary in 2013 of Britten’s birth, Chandos have given listeners two key orchestral works, performed by the BBC Philharmonic under Edward Gardner. Tasmin Little and Howard Shelley are the soloists in the Violin Concerto and Piano Concerto, respectively. The Piano Concerto is given in Britten’s revision of 1945, but we are also given the original third movement, ‘Recitative and Aria’, which Britten replaced with a new and extended movement entitled ‘Impromptu’.

GRIEG: THREE CONCERTI FOR VIOLIN/CHAMBER ORCHESTRA Tromsø Symphony Orchestra, Henning Kraggerud/Naxos 8573137  Listeners may differ on the virtues (or otherwise) of adding to the repertoire of that composer’s orchestral works by orchestrating the chamber music, but one should not be too fastidious about such things – after all, the original chamber version still exists if required, and the gains in such an adaptation process may be profitably set against the losses. This set of charming ‘new’ pieces by Grieg is a solid argument for the procedure. Henning Kraggerud, one of the most acclaimed of Norwegian violinists, has widened the repertoire for Greg orchestral pieces with the Tromsø Symphony Orchestra. In fact, Edvard Grieg never wrote a violin concerto, so Kraggerud decided to orchestrate the composer’s three violin sonatas. These charming and inventive arrangements are described as Three Concerti for Violin and Chamber Orchestra, set the solo violin against a string orchestra augmented by wind instruments in order to keep the music’s chamber ambience.

Classical CD Choice CD of the Month: BARTOK: VIOLIN SONATAS  Barnabas Kelemen (violin), Zoltan Kocsis (piano) Hungaroton HSACD 32515  This particular program has enjoyed several first-rate readings on CD, and there is already a highly recommendable disc of the same repertoire played by Christian Tetzlaff. But that disc now has a considerable rival – a rival, what’s more, which is recorded in the most immediate and wide-ranging SACD sound. The pianist Zoltan Kocsis is, of course, a specialist in Bartok, and his contribution here is every bit as committed as that of the exemplary violin soloist. These are performances which catch fire almost from the first bar (the analytical recording also captures the violinist’s audible commitment to the music with intakes of breath, perhaps distractingly). Bartok enthusiasts need not hesitate, and the problem collectors will have now is simply – does one keep both excellent discs of this program?

KODALY: CONCERTO FOR ORCHESTRA, SYMPHONY, SUMMER EVENING  Miskolc Symphony Orchestra, Laszlo Kovacs/Hungaroton HCD 32723  It’s good to see this glorious – if lesser known — music by Kodaly achieving wider currency; collectors may remember a time when only the conductor Antal Dorati tackled this neglected fare. But there is absolutely no denying that Laszlo Kovacs finds every nuance in the scores here, even making the problematic Symphony sound like the masterpiece that it isn’t quite. Recording quality is nonpareil.

WEBER: DER FREISCHUTZ  Soloists, London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Colin Davis/LSO Live SACD LS 00726  It is perhaps it cause for sadness that this Weber set has turned out to be the final opera recording of one of Britain’s greatest conductors, but it is equally a celebration of the late musician’s skills that this valedictory recording is given such a strong and sinewy reading – a touch steady, perhaps, but the tempi here help accentuate the rigour of the reading. And it is particularly welcome to note that the spoken dialogue — always tedious on repeated listenings – has been excised.

MAHLER: DAS KLAGENDE LIED, BLUMINE, ADAGIO OF THE 10TH SYMPHONY  Beethoven Orchester Bonn, Czech Philharmonic Chorus Brno, Stefan Blunier/MDG 937 1804 SACD  Some may find the piecemeal concept of this Mahler program a curious mix, and it might (at a glance) seem more a useful way of collecting a variety of difficult-to-place pieces by the composer rather than a rigorously thought-through program. But let’s not be too precious about this — and let’s leave aside the arguments for complete performances of the various completions of the 10th Symphony — and judge this striking set on its own merits, which are considerable. The composer described Das Klagende Lied as “My first work in which I have found myself as ‘Mahler’!” It is set in this recording against the fragment from his last symphony and the Blumine andante originally intended for the first symphony. The Beethoven Orchestra of Bonn under Stefan Blunier makes a persuasive case for all the pieces here, though Michal Tilson Thomas’s take on the main vocal piece remains the key modern choice.

CHABRIER: OVERTURE TO ‘GWENDOLINE’; OVERTURE AND TWO ENTRE’ACTES FROM ‘L’ÉTOILE’; LAMENTO; ESPAÑA; HABANERA; FÊTE POLONAISE AND DANSE SLAVE FROM ‘LE ROI MALGRÉ LUI’; JOYEUSE MARCHE; SUITE PASTORALE; BOURRÉE FANTASQUE (ORCHESTRATED BY F. MOTTL)  Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Neeme Järvi/Chandos CHSA 5122 SACD  First of all: the recording! Chandos’ celebrated SACD recording quality is something that we might all take a little granted these days – until we put a new disc such as this and are reminded of just what a dynamic sound picture the company’s gifted recording engineers routinely produce. This is an immensely winning nosegay of popular works by Emmanuel Chabrier inaugurating for Chandos the beginning of a new series of French repertoire, performed by the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande under its newly appointed Artistic Director, Neeme Järvi. Chabrier finally won considerable success in 1877 with L’Étoile, which provides one of the delights here. And in December 1882, Chabrier on a family vacation in Spain noted down the Spanish folk tunes and dance rhythms he came across in that country ; the results were transmuted into his orchestral calling card España,

DEBUSSY, STRAVINSKY, RAVEL ORCHESTRAL WORKS  Orchestre de l’Opéra Nationale de Paris, Philippe Jordan/Naïve V5332  Some of the most significant pieces in modern orchestral music (including the inevitable Le Sacre du Printemps) are here are dispatched with immense élan in a recording that does justice to this radical and groundbreaking music. Debussy’s amorous, sexually frustrated faun in particular is given a charcterisation of great sensuousness and colour.

IN THE SHADOW OF WAR: BLOCH: SCHELOMO BRIDGE: ORATION HOUGH: THE LONELIEST WILDERNESS  Steven Isserlis, Deutsche Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Hugo Wolff et al/BIS SACD 1992  It must have been a considerable challenge when programming this particular trio of pieces, realising that it would be necessary to tackle head-on the generally sombre character of the music on offer. But it is a measure of the deeply committed and moving performances here that there is never a sense of a monochromatic sound picture in the readings; every ounce of the plangent inner depths of the two masterpieces (the Bloch and the bridge) is explored, and the not unattractive Hough piece is not too obviously form a less elevated level of inspiration. Performances by cellist and orchestra are suitably intense, and the SACD sound is extremely persuasive.








Fischer Shines in Wagner Extracts

WAGNER  Budapest Festival Orchestra, Iván Fischer/Channel Classics CCSA 32713 SACD  Performances of the music of Richard Wagner will for many be associated with Iván Fischer’s elder brother Adam who has conducted complete Ring cycles at Bayreuth and in Budapest. Those, however, who follow the concert schedules of Iván Fischer and his phenomenally hard working Budapest Festival Orchestra will know that they have performed the Wagner programme featured on this SACD – or variations on it –  to great acclaim in many of the major European cities over the past couple of years. Continue reading

EMI honours Dame Janet Baker

EMI honours Dame Janet Baker with the release of a special collection celebrating the career of the world-famous British mezzo-soprano. Including such renowned recordings as Elgar’s Sea Pictures (with Sir John Barbirolli) and Brahms’s Alto Rhapsody (with Sir Adrian Boult), the collection also explores Baker’s supreme skill in the field of opera, as an interpreter of lieder, chanson and song, and as a performer of sacred works. Featuring composers from Scarlatti to Schubert and Monteverdi to Mahler, the recordings include some of Dame Janet’s collaborations with such eminent conductors as Otto Klemperer and André Previn. Continue reading