PentaTone announce that Arabella Steinbacher will be their Artist of the Season

Pentatone have announced that violin virtuoso Arabella Steinbacher will be their “Artist of the Season” from January to June 2014. Over the course of the season she will be talking about her upcoming CD “Mozart Violin Concertos 3, 4 & 5″, which will hit the stores in May 2014. Steinbacher has firmly established herself as one of today’s leading violinists on the international concert scene, performing with the world’s major orchestras. Month by month, PentaTone will explore what triggers her inspiration.


Miloš Karadaglić’s Aranjuez from Mercury Classics/Deutsche Grammophon

For his third album on Mercury Classics/Deutsche Grammophon in February 2014,  guitarist Miloš Karadaglić takes the Concierto de Aranjuez as the starting point for a journey across the Spanish landscape, paying tribute to the composers and musicians who placed the modern classical guitar on the international stage. For the recording of the new album Aranjuez, Miloš was joined by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Yannick Nézet-Séguin at the Abbey Road Studios in London.


From Liszt to John Adams: Graham Williams’ Choice

ADAMS: HARMONIELEHRE’ , DOCTOR ATOMIC SYMPHONY, ETC, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Peter Oundjian/CHANDOS SACD CHSA 5129  Admirers of the music of John Adams will be delighted with this collection of three of his works featured on this superbly recorded Chandos SACD that includes ‘Harmonielehre’ an undoubted masterpiece dating from 1985. This work, named after Schoenberg’s celebrated treatise on Harmony published in 1911, brilliantly fuses Adams’ signature minimalism with late-romantic extravagance to thrilling effect over its 40+ minute span. On this disc it is preceded by ‘Short Ride in a Fast Machine’ – a brief show-piece for orchestra – that, according to the composer, represents the sensation of travelling in a high performance sports car and regretting the decision to have got in it. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra and their new musical director, Peter Oundjian, give finely nuanced and propulsive readings of both of these works on this SACD and the Chandos 5.0 multi-channel recording (24 bit/96 kHz) does not disappoint. However, both these works are already available in an almost definitive live performances by the San Francisco Symphony conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. Direct comparison between the two recordings does marginally favour the latter. The SFS players have this music in their blood and, fine though the Chandos recording is, the SFS media disc is even better – by virtue of an increased depth of sound and even greater clarity. Nevertheless, the Chandos trump card for many listeners could well be the inclusion on this disc of Adams’s ‘Dr. Atomic Symphony’ making its first appearance on SACD. This piece uses music re-worked from his 2005 opera ‘Doctor Atomic’ that deals with the moral dilemma facing J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who oversaw the building of the first atomic bomb. Adams has distilled some of the best music from the opera into a 24-minute single movement symphony, that falls into three clearly defined sections. The first is entitled ‘The Laboratory,’ which Adams says was inspired by the music of Edgar Varèse. It begins with dissonant brass chords and pounding timpani strokes that gradually give way to quieter music suggesting the uneasy atmosphere of Oppenheimer’s Los Alamos laboratory. ‘Panic’, the work’s longest section, starts with a furious moto-perpetuo on the strings – here articulated with confidence by the RSNO players– leading to virtuoso brass writing that includes vividly reproduced rasping trombone passages. The final section is called ‘Trinity’ – the code name of the Alamogordo test site usually attributed to Oppenheimer. This title also refers to the poem “Batter my heart, three-person’d God.” by the metaphysical poet John Donne. With chilling prescience the sonnet contains the words “ Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.” In the opera this poem is set as a baritone aria but here it appears as a haunting trumpet solo most sensitively played by Huw Morgan the orchestra’s guest principal trumpet. ‘Doctor Atomic Symphony’ received its first performance in 2007 given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer and the work demonstrates how far the composer’s musical style has altered and developed over the past thirty years. This generous (70’15”) Adams survey can be wholeheartedly recommended.

SHOSTAKOVICH/WEINBERG: CHAMBER SYMPHONIES, Amsterdam Sinfonietta, Candida Thompson/SACD CCSA 34313  This new SACD from Candida Thompson and the Amsterdam Sinfonietta celebrates the 25th anniversary of this exceptional ensemble’s foundation in 1988, and the programme echoes one of their previous releases of transcriptions for string orchestra of the 2nd and 4th of Shostakovich’s fifteen string quartets. This time, however, they perform the familiar Rudolf Barshai arrangements of Quartets 8 and 10, both of which had the imprimatur of the composer. Neither the Chamber Symphony Op110a nor the Chamber Symphony 118a (often called the Symphony for Strings) are new to SACD and these Amsterdam performances compete directly for attention with those by the Rotterdam Chamber Orchestra on Talent Records. Both recordings are equally recommendable, so the couplings will probably be the deciding factor for most listeners, although it is worth pointing out that Conrad van Alphen, the conductor on the Talent disc, adopts a wider variation of tempi in both works. Here the 22 players of the Amsterdam Sinfonietta lavish their usual scrupulous care for dynamics and refinement of sound on the often emotionally searing music of these quartets and manage to combine to thrilling effect the flexibility and precision of a string quartet with the weight and impact of a full string orchestra; for example in the biting sforzandi of the ‘Allegro furioso’ of Op.118a . The DSD recordings, made in two different locations, are clear and wide ranging in the best Channel manner. Between the often intense bleakness of the two Chamber Symphonies the untroubled and somewhat pastoral sounding opening of ‘Weinberg’s ‘Concertino for Violin and String Orchestra’ comes as a welcome contrast. This lyrical and appealing work dates from 1948, but it was not published until 2007. Each of its outer movements have a fluent and engaging charm whilst the second movement (Lento) opens with a cadenza for the soloist before the emergence of a wistful cantilena. Candida Thompson gives a lovely account of this work and the recording provides an exemplary balance between soloist and orchestra. Also included with this release is a beautifully filmed DVD entitled ‘Amsterdam Sinfonietta Revealed – a portrait by Claire Pijman’ that explores the painstaking rehearsal process and collective discussions of the players as they undertake a performance of Op110a in the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam. The absolute rapport between these dedicated musicians is quite evident as is their enjoyment of everything they perform. This is yet another outstanding addition to the Amsterdam Sinfonietta’s peerless discography.

BRUCKNER: SYMPHONY NO. 4, Suisse Romande Orchestra, Marek Janowski/PentaTone SACD PTC 5186 450  With this issue of Bruckner’s 4th Symphony Marek Janowski’s completes his cycle of the nine Bruckner symphonies for PentaTone. Knowledge of Bruckner as a devout Catholic and the oft quoted description of his symphonies as being ‘cathedrals in sound’ sometimes leads to the rather nebulous notion of ‘spirituality’ or lack of it being bandied about when recorded performances of these works are discussed. All too often the presence of this intangible spiritual quality is equated with sluggish tempi and portentous pauses. Janowski’s vital, though never superficial, way with Bruckner provides a refreshing alternative to some of the overly pious behemoths in the catalogue that is worth investigating. There has been a consistency in Janowski’s approach to Bruckner that for many has made this cycle so satisfying and ultimately most rewarding. This consistency is often characterized by a refreshingly brisk view of the composer’s tempo markings combined with a clear understanding of the architecture and the tempo relationships between the movements in these symphonies. In the cycle’s final release of what is probably Bruckner’s most popular symphony the strengths, and for some weaknesses, of Janowski’s interpretative style are again in evidence. He opts for the familiar 1878/80 version edited by Leopold Nowak and his timings for the work’s four movements are: I 18′.15”, II 15′.30”, III 10′.53”, IV 18′.46”. Though I found a welcome sense of urgency and forward momentum in the first three movements – especially the ‘hunting Scherzo’, the finale, whilst magnificently executed, lacked some of the grandeur found in the performances of such Bruckner luminaries as Günter Wand, Bernard Haitink and Herbert Blomstedt. The distinctive timbre of the Suisse Romande Orchestra combines many of the best characteristics of German and French orchestras – piquant woodwind, supple, if slightly grainy, strings and bright, cleanly articulated brass – and they respond eloquently to Janowski’s clear-sighted guidance. The luminous sound quality, as captured by the Polyhymnia team in the fine and reverberant acoustic of the Victoria Hall, Geneva, matches that of the earlier issues. The dynamic range is wide and the multi-channel recording conveys both the hall’s ambient bloom and a fine sense of scale. The choices of alternative versions of this symphony are legion, but Janowski’s vigorous and splendidly recorded reading definitely deserves consideration from any Bruckner aficionado.

SHOSTAKOVICH: SYMPHONY No. 8, Mariinsky Orchestra, Valery Gergiev Mariinsky SACD MAR 0525  This is the fifth release in Valery Gergiev’s on-going cycle of Shostakovich symphonies with the Mariinsky Orchestra and is arguably his finest performance since Symphonies 1 and 15 were released in 2009. Gergiev’s second recording of Shostakovich’s other ‘war symphony’ – the ‘Leningrad’ that appeared last year was characterised by some controversially slow (some might say sluggish) tempi that certainly imbued the work with a suitably epic quality, but at the expense of forward momentum. No such charge can be levelled at this gripping account of the monumental Symphony No. 8. Gergiev’s tempi for each of the symphony’s five movements are expertly conceived. The immense tri-partite opening movement builds quite slowly, but with an inexorable trajectory, and the feeling of uneasy calm before the gradual journey to the movement’s shattering climax is palpable. The power of the relentless snare drum, howling horns, piercing woodwind and characteristically baleful Russian brass make the contrast with the disconsolate cor anglais solo and desolate final pages all the more poignant. Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra again do not pull their punches in either of the aggressive scherzo-like movements that follow. The biting and sardonic playing of the orchestra’s wind section in the first of these two short militaristic movements is matched by the terrifyingly relentless ostinato of the strings in the second. In the ensuing lugubrious passacaglia , Gergiev’s firm grip of the music’s underlying pulse perfectly conveys the music’s melancholy desolation, yet he maintains tension throughout its ten minute span and avoids any suggestion of stasis. He even manages to bring a trace of acerbic humour to a finale that, far from celebrating triumph, ends with a coda of profound stillness and enigmatic calm. This recording is taken from performances given in the Concert Hall of the Mariinsky Theatre over a period of almost two years – from June2011 to March 2013 – but such is the consistency of Gergiev’s conducting, no sense of dislocation is apparent in either performance or recorded sound. It is unfortunate, however, that the conductor’s all too audible groaning is present in a number of passages throughout the symphony – usually when the strings alone are playing. This will irritate some listeners more than others, but be warned. The 5.0 surround recording has a good spread and depth, but does need to be played at a high volume setting to bring maximum presence to the sound. Even in a CD market saturated with recommendable recordings of Shostakovich symphonies this performance is more than worthy of attention from prospective purchasers and makes one eager for the rest of this compelling cycle to appear.

BARTOK: THE MIRACULOUS MANDARIN, MUSIC FOR STRINGS, PERCUSSION AND CELESTA, ETC., Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Edward Gardner/CHANDOS SACD CHSA 5130  It is hardly surprising to discover that the finest recordings of Bartok’s orchestral works are dominated by those made by Hungarian maestri. From the past, the names of Reiner, Ormandy, Dorati, Szell and Solti stand out, and more recently Ivan Fischer and Zoltan Kocsis have added further idiomatic performances to those already committed to disc. It is therefore most gratifying to welcome a fine new Bartok SACD from an unexpected source. The first item is the Suite – in reality two thirds of the complete score – from Bartok’s lurid ballet pantomime ‘The Miraculous Mandarin’. It receives a a fizzing performance from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Edward Gardner that immediately demonstrates the high standard of the playing from these musicians. The combination of the incisive brass, rich strings and weighty percussion provides a visceral thrill, as does the presence of an organ in the work’s opening section. This is often omitted when the suite, rather than the complete ballet, is performed. The engineers achieve a clean sound that combines warmth and massive impact in the acoustic of Hamer Hall, Arts Centre, Melbourne. Gardner’s account of the ‘Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta’ is somewhat less compelling. It is characterised by steady speeds that rob the two dance like movements (II and IV) of some of their energy and exuberance. The important exchanges between the two antiphonal string bodies are not as clearly defined as in many other recordings of this piece and, although one would not wish to return to the days of ping pong stereo, wider separation would be desirable. Gardner is at his best in creating the eerie and glacial atmosphere of the third movement where, on this recording, the tangibility of the various percussion instruments is manifest. Apparently this is a live recording, but thankfully there is no audible evidence of an audience presence. A searching reading of Bartok’s rarely heard ‘Four Orchestral Pieces’ completes the programme. Though written in 1912 they were not orchestrated until 1921 and clearly indicate the composer’s debt to French impressionism. The opening ‘Preludio’ is full of wonderful glowing orchestral sonorities, but in spite of the overall tranquil mood darker elements lurk just below the surface. Much of the powerful ‘Scherzo’ sounds like a precursor for the composer’s writing in ‘The Miraculous Mandarin’, while the dreamy and phantasmagorical ‘Intermezzo’ opens and closes with music of haunting delicacy. The work ends with a ‘Marcia Funebre’ that moves with an implacable tread and sense of menace. Gardner and his orchestra give a strong and finely nuanced performance of this work and are rewarded by the engineers with a recording quality that does full justice to the intricacies of Bartok’s rich and colourful orchestration. Recommended.

BACH: GUARDIAN ANGEL, Rachel Podger/Channel Classics SACD CCSSA35513  Though Bach’s Solo Violin Sonatas and Partitas are rightly regarded as the pinnacle of his violin compositions ‘senza basso’ and represent the ultimate challenge for any violinist in both technical terms and display of profound musicianship, other works by Bach’s contemporaries are equally worthy of attention. On this new SACD entitled ‘Guardian Angel’ the supremely talented Rachel Podger gives us a fascinating programme that, although including music by Bach (her transcription of the composer’s ‘Partita for flute BWV 1013’ from A minor to G minor), mainly focuses on some of his less well known contemporaries. The music ranges from Sonatas by Giuseppe Tartini (1692-1770) and Johann Georg Pisendel (1687-1775) to the hauntingly profound Passacaglia in G minor by Heinrich Biber (1644-1704) from his fifteen Rosary Sonatas. As Rachel Podger indicates, in the booklet that accompanies this recording, the pieces heard on this disc are some of her own favourites, and the care she lavishes on them in these impeccably musical and technically flawless performances bear witness to her enthusiasm for them. The superb 5.0 DSD recordings were made in May 2013 in the ample space of the Doopgezinde Kirk, Haarlem – a favourite venue for Channel – and they demonstrate how the sound of her 1739 Pesarinius instrument can miraculously bring this acoustic alive and impart to the listener a matchless sense of sonic realism. Authoritative and detailed notes by Timothy Jones place the works heard here in their historical context. Puzzlingly though, they also refer to a sonata by Antonio Maria Montanari (1676-1737) that I guess was intended to be included in this programme but had to be omitted due to time constraints on a disc that already has a most generous78.30 playing time. Admirers of Rachel Podger’s playing should not hesitate to acquire these wonderfully expressive performances immaculately recorded by Jared Sacks in state-of-the-art sound. Enthusiastically recommended.

LISZT: ORGAN TRANSCRIPTIONS, Christian Schmitt, CPO SACD777472-2  This SACD contains a fascinating programme of rarities from the ever enterprising CPO label – four of Liszt’s most familiar compositions presented in an unusual form. The fine young organist Christian Schmitt is featured in two of them, whilst three are performed by the recently formed Deutsche Radio Philharmonie conducted by Martin Hasselböck, a distinguished organist and Liszt specialist in his own right. The longest and most inventive piece on this programme is Marcel Dupré’s thrilling arrangement for organ and orchestra of Liszt’s ‘Fantasy and Fugue on the chorale ‘Ad nos, ad salutarem undam’ from Meyerbeer’s opera ‘Le Prophète’. This work – a commission to Dupré from the Wanamaker Foundation in Philadelphia – received a single performance many years ago on the huge organ in the family department store with Dupré conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. Long considered lost, the score material was discovered in the basement of Dupré’s Paris apartment and the work was awarded its second performance as recently as 2007. Christian Schmitt gives what must surely be regarded as a definitive performance on the Karl Schuke Organ in the Philharmonie, Luxembourg. Dupré’s orchestral accompaniment complements the organ part most effectively, and features some fine individual playing from members of the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Orchestra. Orpheus is the fourth of Liszt’s thirteen symphonic poems. Written in 1853-54 it served as an introduction to the first Weimar performance of Gluck’s ‘Orfeo ed Euridice’ in 1854 conducted by the composer. Christian Schmitt’s finely executed account of this short melodic work is given in Liszt’s own transcription for solo organ. The piece’s simple form – a gradual crescendo to a climax which then slowly returns to its contemplative opening – seems well suited to the instrument. The transcriptions of the other two of Liszt’s most familiar organ works also are most successfully realised in purely orchestral garb. This is especially true of the ‘Variations on Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen ‘ from Bach’s Cantata No 12 transcribed by Liszt’s compatriot Leo Weiner. A fine composer in his own right, Weiner produced a powerful and idiomatic composition that could easily pass for another of Liszt’s symphonic poems. The arrangement of the ‘Prelude and Fugue on B-A-C-H’ that completes the four works on this SACD falls to the Austrian composer Rainer Bischof (b.1947). Bischof uses rather more percussion than Weiner but is equally effective in capturing the spirit of the original Liszt piece and is well worth hearing. Both these works receive strong performances from Martin Hasselböck and his capable orchestra recorded in the second venue for this disc – the Emmerich Smola Hall, Kaiserlautern. The perspective of these multi-channel recordings places the listener quite far back in both venues which possess similar acoustics, and, while the sound favours warmth and richness above clarity, the overall effect does not disappoint. Organ pedal notes are powerfully reproduced and the difficult balances between organ and orchestra are well managed by the engineers. Highly recommended.

BRITTEN: TURN OF THE SCREW, Soloists, London Symphony Orchestra, Richard Farms/LSO Live SACD LSO 749  Just in time for the end of the Britten centenary celebrations comes this fine recording from LSO Live of Britten’s spookiest opera ‘The Turn of the Screw’. The performances from which this recording was made took place in the Barbican (April 16 & 18, 2013) and were originally planned to be conducted by Sir Colin Davis whose death two days earlier no doubt made this an especially poignant occasion for all concerned. As long ago as 1932 Britten had heard a radio dramatisation of Henry James’s novella ‘The Turn of the Screw’ and it made an immediate impression on his consciousness. He described it in his diary as “ a wonderful impressive but terribly eerie and scary play”. His collaboration with his librettist Myfanwy Piper some twenty years later yielded a chilling and ambiguous masterpiece involving one of Britten’s favourite themes, the corruption of innocence, that continues to fascinate audiences today. There is a cinematic quality to this two-act opera with its Prologue and sixteen rapidly changing scenes, each separated by a series of fifteen orchestral variations which is probably why a number of versions of it have appeared on film or DVD. The relative success of these depends on the ability of the director and the set designer to depict convincingly both the location of each scene and more importantly create a suitable visual atmosphere for it – by no means an easy task. No such problems need bother the audio only listener whose own level of imagination and immersion in Britten’s marvellous score is all that is needed to let the disquieting story make its mark. This new recording, a first on SACD, is strongly cast. From the beautifully sung opening Prologue it is apparent that Andrew Kennedy is an excellent choice for the work’s only male role – that of the ghost of the evil Peter Quint. He sings throughout with much beauty of tone yet still conveys Quint’s insidious malevolence without resort to any caricature. Sally Mathews, as the inexperienced governess to the children Miles and Flora, gives a searing portrayal of this complex character – her anxiety in the opening scene gradually giving way to horror at the realisation of the children’s corruption by evil forces. Miles is sung with commendable accuracy by the 11-year-old Michael Clayton-Jolly whose voice is occasionally overwhelmed both by the orchestra and also by that of his sister Flora – a youthful voiced Lucy Hall. The cast is completed by the reliable Catherine Wyn-Rogers as the housekeeper Mrs. Grose and the riveting characterisation of Miss Jessel by Katherine Broderick. Richard Farnes, the current Music Director of Opera North, directs a detailed and well-paced performance in which the collective and individual playing of his chamber orchestra made up of 17 members of the LSO could hardly be bettered. It is pleasing, for once, to report that the production is enhanced rather than diminished by the Barbican acoustic and that Britten’s pellucid scoring is marvellously etched by the clarity and immediacy of the 5.1 DSD recording. The two-disc set includes informative and thought-provoking notes on the work by Gavin Plumley as well as the full libretto. Listeners (and viewers) are almost spoilt for choice with the many very fine recordings of this opera currently available (eleven at a last count, including that conducted by the composer), but this new one definitely deserves inclusion amongst the best of them.


Anything Goes: The American Musical

Anything Goes: A History of American Musical Theatre  Ethan Mordden   As might be expected from the doyen of writers on the American musical, Ethan Mordden’s take-no-prisoners, massively opinionated (but highly enjoyable) history of the highs and lows of an authentic American art form will have informed reader disagreeing as much as they are metaphorically patting the writer on the back for his keen insights. As with his earlier books on the classic Broadway musicals, immense scholarship is combined with sardonic wit; you may not always agree with Ethan Mordden, but you’ll enjoy the argument. (Anything Goes: A History of American Musical Theatre by Ethan Mordden is published by Oxford University Press)     Late Life Jazz: The Life and Career of Rosemary Clooney  Ken Crossland & Malcom Macfarlane  Given her status as one of the key interpreters of the Great American songbook, it’s hard to remember now that Rosemary Clooney was once dismissed as a purveyor of the most banal of novelty songs (a period of her career that Clooney herself was wryly contemptuous of). But matchless interpretations of Gershwin, Rodgers, Porter and co. are what she is now remembered for, notably those with her non-pareil orchestral collaborator Nelson Riddle. And her passionate six-year affair to the latter (when both were marred to other people) is noted as central to her artistic and person life in this lively and non-hagiographic biography. (Late Life Jazz: The Life and Career of Rosemary Clooney by Ken Crossland & Malcom Macfarlane is published by Oxford University Press)