Glorious Glyndebourne on Opus Arte

An exuberant brainchild of John Christie, Glyndebourne Festival Opera was launched in 1934. This year the prestigious festival celebrates its 80th birthday, and in recognition of this Opus Arte release ‘Glorious Glyndebourne’ on DVD and Blu-ray. Glyndebourne is utterly unique and has become a byword for excellence, bringing together the finest operatic musicians of the day for extended rehearsals in an idyllic setting with uncompromised technical and theatrical standards. This celebration includes excerpts from 12 classic Glyndebourne productions from the last 13 years. Continue reading

Proper Note to Distribute New Labels

Proper Note has taken on the distribution in the UK and Ireland of the Hamburg-based classical labels ES-DUR and CHARADE with around 60 recordings between them.  These labels originated in the German city in 1992 but in spring 2011, Karola Parry and Udo Potratz, managing directors of C2-Hamburg, took over running the business from founder Eberhard Schnellen. Since then, as A&R producers, the pair have developed the ES-Dur label in particular, bringing to it a reputation in Europe for outstanding artistic and technical quality. Proper Note begins to release ES-Dur albums here on 27 January 2014, starting with its six latest recordings, plus three from the label’s back catalogue, including Divine – Wagner: Scenes from Gotterdämmerüng / Stravinsky: Apollon Musagète with Deborah Voigt (soprano),the  Hamburg Symphony Orchestra and  Jeffrey Tate (conductor)


Elgar from PentaTone, Sibelius from BIS

ELGAR: THE DREAM OF GERONTIUS, SYMPHONY NO. 1, Soloists, Royal Flemish Orchestra, PentaTone SACD PTC 5186472(2)  Recorded versions of Elgar’s the ‘Dream of Gerontius’ have, in recent times, been dominated by those conducted by the three Bs – Barbirolli, Boult and Britten. It would take a remarkable performance to equal, let alone supplant, any one of these three, but when sound quality enters the equation received opinion might alter for many listeners. On SACD there is only the finely conducted but otherwise disappointingly uneven version from the late Sir Colin Davis on LSO Live. Though the usual dry Barbican acoustic is somewhat ameliorated by the engineers and the LSO chorus sing with much enthusiasm and conviction, the disappointing Gerontius of David Rendall rules this set out for me. The constant beat in his voice, disturbing at first, becomes more wearying as the work proceeds as does his dry, forced delivery of the words. To be fair, he was a late replacement for an ailing Ben Heppner at this recorded performance. The first thing that strikes one about this new coupling of ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ and Elgar’s 1st Symphony from Edo de Waart is the sheer magnificence of the sound quality. A glance at the liner notes reveals that the producer was the veteran tonmeister Wilhelm Hellweg whose name will be familiar to many listeners from the many fine recordings that he has made for the Philips label over the past 30 years. Working here with engineers Steven Maes and Tom Proost he has achieved a recording that captures the full sonic grandeur of the work in a way virtually impossible to experience from any of the competition mentioned above. The venue was the Concert hall deSingel in Antwerp (February 2013) whose excellent acoustics obviously played a large part in the success of this production. The sound stage is wide with tremendous depth of field, whilst the balancing of soloists, chorus and orchestra could hardly be improved upon. The lower end of the frequency spectrum is powerfully reproduced, so that not only can the important organ part in the oratorio be felt as well as heard, but in the symphony any appearance of the bass drum has a tangible impact. The three soloists make a generally good if not outstanding team. Peter Auty as Gerontius is the possessor of a bright, penetrating lyric tenor voice. He sings the part with fluency and, where appropriate, fine ringing tones, but as yet his singing does not manage to convey the role’s full range of emotions in the way some of the great interpreter’s of the past have done. Auty’s diction is impeccable and his vocal steadiness is especially welcome. The American baritone John Hancock is a strained and wobbly Priest at the end of Part 1, but improves considerably as the Angel of Agony in Part 2. Michelle Breedt’s mezzo-soprano is lighter than many singers heard in the role of the Angel, but she sings with percipience and a consoling warmth. The most impressive contribution to this performance comes from the superbly disciplined singing of Collegium Vocale Gent. This choir, more often associated with historically informed performances of music from an earlier age, brings rare sensitivity and thrilling attack to Elgar’s choral writing. Their delivery of the chorus “ Praise to the Holiest in the height” is absolutely spine -tingling. It is after this section that the break between discs occurs, an unfortunate necessity, but one justified by the generous inclusion of de Waart’s straightforward and expressive reading of of Elgar’s 1st Symphony. Tempi are well chosen, and apart from an occasional lack of urgency in the otherwise full-blooded playing, this is a most enjoyable performance. There is no doubt that Edo de Waart deserves the highest praise for the way he has secured a striking cohesion in his accounts of both these works, welding everything together and eliciting such drama from forces who can hardly be over-familiar with either of these scores. The two SACDs are packaged in a single SACD case directly on top of each other – not an ideal solution – and surprisingly, the thirty eight page accompanying booklet finds no room for the Cardinal Newman poem. Overall a generous and beautifully recorded release definitely worth investigating.

SIBELIUS: MASONIC RITUAL MUSIC,  Lahti Symphony Orchestra, Jaakko Kuusisto/ BIS-CD-1977  A most welcome and authoritative disc of rare Sibelius from BIS. Sibelius wrote his Masonic Ritual Music Op.113 (often called Musique Religieuse) in 1926 and it is one of the composer’s final compositions that herald the long period of silence before his death in 1957. The work, which was much revised by the composer in the 1940s, consists of a series of melodious hymns set for tenor and organ magnificently performed here by the tenor Hannu Jurmu with Harri Viitanen playing the 1967 Marcussen organ of Helsinki Cathedral. This recording also features an a cappella version of the national Finnish anthem ‘Finlandia’ whose melody will be familiar to most listeners from it appearance in Sibelius’s tone poem of the same name. The excellent YL Male Voice Choir deliver it with thrilling attack and complete unanimity. In 2007, the conductor Jaakko Kuusisto made an arrangement of the score for tenor, organ and orchestra at the request of the Masons for a special concert in Lahti. Kuusisto’s arrangement is also included on this disc, performed by the Lahti Symphony Orchestra and another fine Finnish tenor Mika Pohjonen. Though Kuusisto is at pains to point out that “ No special attempt was made to imitate Sibelius’s style of orchestration, as that kind of approach rarely works out for the best” one would be hard pressed to imagine that it could not have been made by the composer himself. The recordings, made in both venues (Helsinki Cathedral and the Sibelius Hall, Lahti), are up to the usual BIS standard of excellence. The inclusion of full texts and translations and Andrew Barnett’s informative notes make this CD an essential purchase for all Sibelius devotees.

HOMMAGE À TROIS William Berger, baritone, Scottish Chamber Orchestra directed by Nicholas McGegan/Linn SACD CKD428  ‘Hommage à trois’ is a well compiled SACD that showcases the considerable talent of the fine young baritone William Berger in a programme of familiar and less familiar operatic scenes. The ‘trois’ in question are Haydn, Mozart and Cimarosa whose ‘Il Maestro di Capella’ provides the longest and most entertaining item on the disc. It is pleasing to find Haydn represented on this disc by arias from no less than five of his operas. The melodic invention and wit displayed in these works is astonishing and their unconscionable neglect both in the opera house and on record is most disappointing. ‘Qual tuo visetto amabile’ from ‘Orlando Paladino’, in which Berger is partnered by the delightful Carolyn Sampson, will surely bring a smile to even the most dour countenance. In the Mozart selections Sampson joins Berger as the Susanna to his Count in ‘Crudel! perché finora’ from ‘Le Nozze di Figaro’ as well as in two items from ‘Die Zauberflöte’.  William Berger’s light and well projected baritone is well suited to all this music though I felt on a couple of occasions that the lowest register of his voice lacked weight and absolute security. However, his characterisations throughout are most engaging and he delivers the aforementioned Cimarosa piece with confidence and a gentle humour thankfully free from excess caricature. The deft and beguiling accompaniments are in the capable hands of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra directed by Nicholas McGegan who brings a natural and unforced style to every aria. Try the single instrumental item – the Sinfonia that opens the Cimarosa – to experience the crispness and buoyancy of the playing. The recording in the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, expertly engineered by Philip Hobbs, is crystal clear with the surround channels providing just the right amount of ambience to the sound. Texts and translations are included in the accompanying booklet as well as an amusing and slightly risqué photo of William Berger that suggests maybe ‘Hommage’ should be ‘Menage’. Altogether a most enjoyable recital.

From Rollicking Richard Strauss to Measured Jerry Goldsmith

BIS2027 (3)

HANDEL: WATER MUSIC HWV 348-350; OUVERTURE FROM THE OCCASIONAL ORATORIO HWV 62, Haydn Sinfonietta Wien, Manfred Huss/BIS SACD 2027  When did you last listen to the Water Music? Here, courtesy of BIS, is the perfect opportunity. Manfred Huss and the period orchestra Haydn Sinfonietta Wien are internationally acclaimed for their performances of Haydn and Schubert. They now bring their enthusiasm and expertise to one of Handel’s most famous and popular works, rounding off the disc with the less well-known, but delightful Ouverture.

BEETHOVEN: COMPLETE STRING QUARTETS II: STRING QUARTET IN E MINOR, OP. 59, NO. 2 ‘RAZUMOVSKY NO. 2’, STRING QUARTET IN E FLAT MAJOR, OP. 127, Quartetto di Cremona/SACD Audite 92681  Triumphantly following the first volume in this complete edition of Beethoven String Quartets with the Quartetto di Cremona, Audite has pulled off something of a coup. The works for this second volume cover two periods during which Beethoven turned away for good from the culture of music amateurs of the late eighteenth century. The Quartets Op. 59 of 1806, commissioned by Count Andrey Kirillovich Razumovsky, were written for Vienna’s most famous professional string quartet, led by Ignaz Schuppanzigh. Beethoven’s musical language is no longer balanced and well-seasoned, as that of his contemporaries, but is extreme in every respect: ruthless and with feeling, dramatically operatic and full of contrapuntal finesse. The Quartetto di Cremona contrasts this work from Beethoven’s mature phase with his opus 127 of 1824. It is this piece in E flat major with which the now-deaf composer inaugurated his series of late works, received by his contemporaries with alarm, but by posterity with admiration. In supple surround sound, these four young musicians from Genoa have revived the Italian string quartet playing tradition of the Quartetto Italian, and may now be counted as the finest quartet in Italy, as this SACD testifies. There is some extraneous noise from the players, rather too clear in surround sound.


MAHLER SYMPHONY NO. 6, Bamberger Symphoniker, Jonathan Nott/Tudor SACD 7191  Few of the great Mahler symphonies have occasioned such radically different interpretations as Mahler’s intense and dramatic 6th, from the neurotic intensity of Solti’s Decca set to the measured, utterly focused reading by Haitink for Phillips. Latterly, recordings in the super audio medium have become warmly competitive, and until recently the most acclaimed performance in this field was that by Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, a reading of tremendous rigour and power, not spoiled by a live audience and the occasional cough. So how does Jonathan Nott’s performance measure against the much-acclaimed Tilson Thomas? The first feature that should be noted is that Nott is perhaps less interested in the ‘Tragic’ nomenclature of the symphony so much as delineating with rigour its weighty and imposing structure, an insistent martial note a key element in the reading. And while Nott, trenchant though his reading is, does not capture the intensity of the Tilson Thomas reading, there is no denying the often overwhelming commitment of conductor and orchestra to this remarkable masterpiece, captured in wide-ranging and epic sound which does full justice to the complex and colourful score. Nott’s reading joins the most competitive available of Mahler’s great symphonic testament.


MAHLER SYMPHONY NO. 8, Bamberger Symphoniker, Jonathan Nott/Tudor SACD 7192  One wonders if this disc may represent the completion of Nott’s traversal of the Mahler symphonies, but it would be certainly be a cause for celebration if the conductor decided to continue and record one of the various completions of the unfinished 10th Symphony — from the commitment of Nott’s previous readings, it seems evident that he could hold together this complex structure with an unyielding attention to its through-line. This recording of the 8th is immensely impressive, and certainly the opening choruses (and sonorous organ passages) lift the roof off — while perhaps lacking the final blazing intensity of the disc of this symphony that many considered to be the apogee of Georg Solti’s cycle. Nevertheless, the interpretation here is full of powerful insights, with the conductor’s concentration making the notable insecurities among some of the soloists seem less important. Together with the concurrent 6th, this is a worthy addition to Nott’s impressive Mahler cycle.


SHOSTAKOVICH/WEINBERG: CHAMBER SYMPHONIES, Amsterdam Sinfonietta, Candida Thompson/SACD CCSA 34313  Given the popularity of Rudolf Barshai’s orchestrations of Shostakovich’s string quartets, there is almost a possibility that these sometimes controversial transcriptions will soon rival the original pieces — which (when given with the conviction to be found in this powerful issue) will be none too soon. But a particular pleasure here is provided by the neglected piece by Shostakovich’s friend Weinberg, also played with great panache.


BRITTEN: VARIATIONS ON A THEME OF FRANK BRIDGE OP. 10; SIMPLE SYMPHONY OP.4; LACHRYMAE OP. 48A; TWO PORTRAITS; ELEGY FOR STRINGS, Camerata Nordica, Terje Tønnesen/BIS SACD 2060  A delight, though the Simple symphony here is touch heavy-footed. This collection of works for string orchestra combines two of Britten’s first master-pieces, Simple Symphony and the Frank Bridge Variations, with the even earlier Elegy for Strings – recorded here for the first time – and Two Portraits, composed in the composer’s teenage years.


WAGNER: SIEGFRIED Pentatone SACD PTC 5186408  The penultimate entry in the ambitious Pentatone project to record all Wagner’s Ring operas does not disappoint, and like its predecessors fully utilises the total sound stage in a fashion not previously attempted in terms of a sheer wide-ranging sound stage.


ELGAR: ENIGMA VARIATIONS/VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: THE WASPS/FANTASIA on GREENSLEEVES, Kansas City Symphony/Michael Stern Reference SACD RR-129  A personal note: this writer was so impressed by the performance and sound quality of this cherishable disc in its CD version that I contacted Reference Recordings with my one caveat: that the disc was not afforded the company’s inestimable SACD spruce-up. And here, after some delay, is the answer to my wish, proving to be quite as remarkable as one might expect: just try the overture to Vaughan Williams’ The Wasps or the finale to the Enigma Variations to see what the SACD medium is capable of in the hands of a company that is fully aware of its capabilities. As we said of the CD version: 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.


KLUGHARDT: Symphony No. 5 Overtures Anhaltische Philharmonie Antony Hermus CPO 777693-2  Genial, companionable music from the enterprising CPO; Klughardt’s Symphony No. 5 and Overtures are not neglected masterpieces, but make for attractive listening. These lively and colourful scores by a forgotten composer are interpreted by the Anhalitische Philharmonie under the baton of Antony Hermus.


BERLIOZ: L’ENFANCE DU CHRIST, Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Robin Ticciati/LINN SACD CKD 440


Robin Ticciati once again demonstrates his Berliozian credentials with his latest recording, L’enfance du Christ, featuring the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Ticciati is a regular guest conductor of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, widely considered to be one of Europe’s leading orchestras. The SRSO has won many Swedish and international awards including a GRAMMY and has made several GRAMMY-nominated recordings. The SRSO Chorus are one of the best large-scale choruses in Europe. On this recording, Ticciati and SRSO are joined by a sterling cast of soloists including: Stephane Loges, winner of the Wigmore Hall International Song Competition, Veronique Gens, Yann Beuron and Alistair Miles.
BRITTEN: TURN OF THE SCREW, Soloists, London Symphony Orchestra, Richard Farms/LSO Live SACD LSO 749
 Britten’s subtle operatic masterpiece is here given in a performance that captures every nuance of this subtle and poetic Henry James adaptation.


R. STRAUSS: DON JUAN, DEATH AND TRANSFIGURATION, TILL EULENSPIEGEL’S MERRY PRANKS, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Manfred Honeck/Reference Recordings SACD F707  The mastery of the orchestra which is the hallmark of Richard Strauss’s achievement has been well served by the SACD medium, but this particular combination of three of the composer’s greatest tone poems has not heretofore appeared together in surround sound, and it is a particular pleasure to enjoy this combination played with such dedication and verve by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under Manfred Honeck. Reference Recordings are, of course, celebrated for their nonpareil sound quality is courtesy of the legendary engineer prof Johnson), but it is a particular cause for celebration that they have chosen the super audio medium for this exhilarating disc. The company have also produced a shamelessly enjoyable Bizet programme by the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra under Martin West (RR-131).


BRITTEN: STRING QUARTETS NOS. 1 & 3; ALLA MARCIA, Emperor Quartet/BIS SACD 1570  Britten’s string quartets have long been among the composer’s most neglected pieces, but are here granted performances which identify the music as among the composer’s most personal work. The first disc in this series of three was released in 2010, and included a much-acclaimed performance of the Second String Quartet.


SUPERHEROES! Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, John Morris Russell/Fanfare Cincinatti FC-002 This latest release from John Morris Russell and the Cincinnati Pops showcases some of Hollywood’s grandest musical scores from recent blockbusters. Needless to say, the defining symphonic contribution to superhero scores is John Williams’ magnificently swaggering Superman March, here given with all the panache one might wish for.


QBVII Jerry Goldsmith City of Prague Philharmonic, Nic Raine/Prometheus XPCD175  The days when impressively written orchestral film scores were granted a meagre thirty minutes or so of representation on LP — or, even worse, were not preserved apart from on the sprockets of the film the score was written for — thankfully seem more and more remote these days. And the current recognition of (and more importantly, restoration, reconstruction and recording of) the very best scores by such composers as Jerry Goldsmith is due to the indefatigable work of such producers as James Fitzpatrick (and conductors such as Nic Raine), who here provides a generously filled two-CD set (in wide-ranging and detailed sound) containing one of Goldsmith’s most impressive scores, written for a solid Leon Uris TV drama. The latter went in for some tendentious pleading for the state of Israel, but such issues are unimportant in the context of this beautiful, Hebraic-sounding score, mostly in meditative vein (apart from a striking fanfare or two), with the missing pages of the score painstakingly restored by composer/orchestrator Aaron Purvis. There is one caveat, and it’s a small one: the CDs link the often-short cues, showcasing Goldsmith’s conception in organic fashion, but include one cue which is in fact ‘God Save the Queen’, followed by an undistinguished, source-music waltz. But this is nevertheless nearly two hours of vintage Goldsmith; aficionados of the composer will be in seventh heaven.