Stunning Szymanowski

SZYMANOWSKI: Symphony No. 3 ‘The Song of the Night’, etc., BBC Symphony Orchestra, Edward Gardner Chandos SACD CHSA 5143  This is the eighth release in Chandos’s extensive survey of Polish music (Muzyka Polska) and the third SACD in the series devoted to the orchestral and vocal music of Karol Szymanowski. The two earlier have garnered much well-deserved praise for the insightful conducting of Edward Gardner, the fine playing of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the superb Chandos engineering. In every one of those essential aspects this latest recording matches the previous issues. Szymanowski’s Symphony No. 3 ‘The Song of the Night’, completed in 1914, is a setting of the poem by the 13th century Persian poet, Jalal al-Din al- Rumi in a translation by Tadeusz Micinski. It has received some notable recordings over recent years of which those by Simon Rattle (CD only) and Antoni Wit, whose compelling version is available on a Blu-ray audio disc, deserve particular consideration from collectors. Overall Gardner’s tempi are closer to those of Wit than Rattle and he captures the perfumed sensuousness of the music to perfection. The young British tenor Ben Johnson copes well with the high tessitura of his solos, even if he does not quite match Ryszard Minkiewicz’s more idiomatic singing for Wit. Both the BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra could hardly be more committed in their collective response to Gardner’s detailed and glowing account of Szymanowski’s rhapsodic and ecstatic masterpiece, and the Chandos 24-bit / 96kHz recording is absolutely outstanding. It has a huge dynamic range that brings an almost holographic realisation to the listener of the spacious acoustic of the Fairfield Halls, Croydon where it was recorded in February 2014. The venue for the recording of the ‘Love Songs of Hafiz’ was the BBC Maida Vale Studio 1 whose clear acoustic seems perfect for experiencing the beauty of Szymanowski’s glittering orchestral palette and Ben Johnson’s sensitive singing of these eight songs. The texts are by the 14th Century poet Shams al-Din Muhammad, better known as Hafiz, translated into German by the poet Hans Bethge. The first three songs are from an earlier cycle for voice and piano of the same title to which were then added five more to produce the version heard here that received its first performance in Warsaw 1922 as an accompaniment to a ballet. Each one is exquisitely orchestrated in the composer’s oriental style from that period in his creative development and the recording captures every delicate detail with utmost clarity and warmth. It is sometimes difficult to know what to make of Szymanowski’s 1st Symphony. It was the young composer’s first foray into the genre and was originally intended as a three-movement work, but a planned central Adagio never materialised. The two remaining movements are both densely scored and written in highly chromatic harmonic language. The music of this symphony verges at times on hysteria though it is interspersed with more lyrical passages. Edward Gardner’s cohesive performance of this symphony holds the work together better than any previous versions that I have encountered, and by adopting a less frenetic approach than Valery Gergiev’s recent account on LSO Live, makes a good case for a work rarely heard in the concert hall. The fine acoustic of the recording venue – this time the Watford Colosseum – plays an important part in keeping textures clear. This SACD is another marvellous addition to the growing discography of this fascinating composer’s oeuvre.

Bach in Surround Sound and Other Titles: Reviews by Graham Williams


BACH: BRANDENBURG CONCERTOS, Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, TACET SACD 0101-5  TACET’s unique recordings of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos by the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra have already been released on SACD as a two-disc. The re-release of all six concertos on a single Blu-ray audio disc with a playing time of 94′ 39” minutes will be a tempting prospect for those who admire TACET’s philosophy of placing the listener at the centre of the performance and utilising the full capabilities of multi-channel sound. These Stuttgart performances were originally recorded in 2000 and first issued, I believe, in the now virtually defunct DVD-A format disc before release on SACD and now Blu-ray audio. Choice between multi-channel (default) and stereo layers is made using respectively the red or yellow buttons on the player’s remote control. Though the information on the disc case states ‘TACET Real Surround 5.1’ it is in fact 4.1 as there is no use of the centre channel. The recordings were made in the small baroque church in the village of Gönningen in Baden-Wurttemberg whose clear acoustic suits these works perfectly. Five different instrumental layouts are used and the benefit each of these bring to the clarity of Bach’s contrapuntal writing is immense. The ear can focus on individual instrumental lines with ease while at the same time the overall body of sound remains coherent. These accounts of the Brandenburgs from the superb Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra are unfailingly excellent. They perform on modern instruments, but with the addition of a harpsichord engagingly played by Robert Aldwinckle. These are in no way ‘old-fashioned’ – tempi are brisk but not frenetic, and the various members of the orchestra communicate a sense of absolute technical confidence and refinement of tone Some will miss the bright sound of recorders in the 4th Concerto but the crisp and beautifully articulated playing of the two flautists, Natalie Schwaabe and Andreas Schmidt, is a delight. There are countless versions of these joyous masterpieces on record – performed in widely different interpretative styles and utilising varying degrees of scholarship – to suit every taste. Those, however, who are unconvinced by the sounds of some of the more adrenalin-fuelled, wiry and acidulous sounding period groups in these works – where all too often displays of virtuosity take precedence over more lasting musical values – should find this disc a most refreshing alternative.

SPLENDID ORGAN SOUNDS Andrzej Chorosiński, organ/Musicon SACD MSCD 047 It is rare these days for a record company, whether large or small, to move from CD to high resolution recordings, but the Polish company Musicon, much to their credit, has done just that by releasing a clutch of seven multi-channel hybrid SACDs of organ music recorded between 2010 and 2014. The aptly titled ‘Splendid Organ Sounds’ is a collection of pieces designed to illustrate the unique sound and capabilities of the organ of St. Jacob’s Cathedral in the city of Olsztyn in north-eastern Poland. Some were written specifically for the organ by various composers whilst others are arrangements and transcriptions of works originally written for other instruments or instrumental combinations. They are played here by Professor Andrzej Chorosiński of the Frederic Chopin University in Warsaw. The recital begins with Chorosiński’s own tasteful transcription of ‘La Primavera’, the opening concerto of Vivaldi’s popular ‘Four Seasons’ though some may find the playing in the outer movements lacking the exuberance and charm usually associated with this piece. The romantic repertoire is well represented by fine accounts of César Franck’s ‘Prélude, Fugue and Variation’ and the sixth of Mendelssohn’s Organ Sonatas, a work based on the Lutheran Bach chorale ‘Vater unser im Himmelreich BWV 416. But perhaps the most imposing sounds from the much restored Olsztyn instrument are heard in the splendid four-movement ‘Suite Gothique pour grand orgue’ by Léon Böellmann and the lesser known, at least outside Poland, ‘Improvisations on the Polish hymn ‘Holy God” by Mieczyslaw Surzyński. The final three items on this disc are Bach arrangements and transcriptions – the ever popular ‘Air’ from Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major and restrained, though not especially distinctive, accounts of two of the most performed six Schübler Chorales. The booklet states that the recording – made in May 2011 – is 24bit/96 kHz 5.0 surround, but the output from my sub-woofer suggests that it is in fact 5.1. The acoustic of the imposing Olsztyn Gothic Basilica is excellently conveyed with praiseworthy focus and depth, and there is very little mechanism noise captured by the microphones. The attractive accompanying 24-page booklet provides details of the organ specification, photographs of the interior of St. Jacob’s Cathedral and notes on the music in Polish, English and German. Thanks to Musicon’s fine engineering this enjoyable SACD provides a comprehensive demonstration of the wide range of tone colour that the Olsztyn instrument is capable of producing in music of different styles, and as such it can be recommended on both sonic and musical grounds.

MASTERPIECES IN MINIATURE, San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas, San Francisco Symphony SACD SFS 0060  The release of ‘Masterpieces in Miniature’ celebrates Michael Tilson Thomas’s 20th season with the San Francisco Symphony, a partnership that over the years has yielded so many fine recordings. The twelve pieces on this disc are, for the most part, what Sir Thomas Beecham would have called ‘Lollipops’; short encores played at the end of concerts of music that usually contrasts in mood with what has been heard earlier and are designed to send the audience home in a contented frame of mind. The majority of the works featured here are timeless classics – melodic and for the most part undemanding for the listener who can simply sit back and enjoy the superb orchestral playing delivered in state-of-the-art sound. All were recorded live but there is no audience noise and the justifiably enthusiastic applause only erupts after the final item – a swaggering account of the ‘Cortège de Bacchus’ from Delibes’s ballet ‘Sylvia’. The first item, the sparkling Scherzo from Henry Litolff’s ‘Concerto Symphonique No.4’, receives a brilliant performance from the charismatic young pianist Yuja Wang who has made very regular appearances with the SFS since her début with them back in 2006. The delicacy and precision of her playing is matched by the orchestra’s alert accompaniment. This is followed by Mahler’s ‘Blumine’, a lovely piece that was originally intended as the second movement of the composer’s 1st Symphony but was removed by him in the wake of adverse criticism. Those who have some or all of Michael Tilson Thomas’s superb cycle of Mahler Symphonies and works for voice, chorus and orchestra on this label will be delighted to have this addendum to them. It receives a deeply felt and affectionate performance in which the orchestra’s Principal Trumpet Mark Inouye deserves special kudos for the sensitivity and elegance of his trumpet solos. In the wake of a beautifully poised and cool account of Faure’s ‘Pavane’ we have something of a rarity – Debussy’s own orchestration of ‘La Plus que lente’ a piano waltz that he composed in 1910. Two years later, possibly influenced by the sounds of the gypsy café ensembles that he heard in the Hungarian capital, Debussy orchestrated the piece for flute, clarinet, piano, strings and the exotic cimbalom. It is a captivating piece delivered with style and appropriate languid nonchalance. The inclusion on this disc of ‘The Alcotts’ movement from the Ives/Brant ‘A Concord Symphony’ was an excellent idea. This track is taken from an earlier release on the SFS label and this excerpt should help to bring this iconoclastic work to a wider audience. Little comment is needed about the Schubert, Rachmaninov, Dvorak, Sibelius and Grieg items each of which receive polished renditions from this superb orchestra, but mention must be made of Michael Tilson Thomas’s enthralling account of Delius’s ‘On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring’ that suggests a Delian of some stature. It is perhaps worth mentioning that clips from all twelve pieces can be auditioned at Thanks to the fine acoustic of the Davies Symphony Hall, the sound quality is all one could wish for – rich and detailed and clean. Tracks 1-5 and 7-12 were recorded in September 2013 and May 2014 (PCM 192kHz / 24-bit) and Track 6 is taken from the Ives/Brant recording referred to above recorded in February 2010 (96kHz / 24-bit). Multi-channel listeners will find that the use of the centre channel is quite discreet on all the tracks recorded in 2013 and 2014. This does not, however, in any way affect one’s enjoyment of this most recommendable SACD.

NIELSEN: SYMPHONIES 1 & 4, New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert Dacapo SACD  6.220624 It has been a long wait of more than two years since the first issue in Dacapo’s Nielsen Symphony cycle from Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic was released – a coupling of the composer’s 3rd and 2nd Symphonies, so this second volume comprising Nielsen’s 4th and 1st Symphonies is most welcome. Both symphonies were recorded live at Avery Fisher Hall, New York City in March 2014 and the liner notes inform us that the recording was made in the DXD audio format (352.8kHz /24-bit). The sound quality throughout is very fine indeed, and engineer Preben Iwan is to be congratulated for managing to achieve such a clear and spacious result in a venue whose acoustic has often been the subject of criticism. Comparisons with the earlier release reveal that the capture of the hall reverberation is now more natural and that the orchestral image is marginally closer to the listener. There are small traces of audience noise picked up by the microphones, a rustle here and a discreet cough there, as is to be expected from live performances. More disturbing is the conductor’s tendency to stamp on the podium – try from 9’37” into the third movement of the 4th symphony. These minor flaws, however, pale into insignificance when the overall excellence of Gilbert’s performances are taken into account. The playing of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra again shows that they are still one of the world’s great orchestras. Strings possess a glowing richness and warmth, woodwinds are characterful with every solo beautifully phrased, while the burnished lower brass and fabulous horn section thrill with every entry. Gilbert’s use of antiphonally divided violins also adds immensely to the appreciation of Nielsen’s string writing in both symphonies and, whether playing softly or very loudly, timpani are captured with amazing fidelity – though I would have liked to have heard a greater separation between the two sets of battling timpani in the finale of the 4th Symphony. I was surprised to find that Gilbert’s tempi for each of the four movements of the 1st Symphony match, within a few seconds, those adopted by Colin Davis in his 2012 recording. The propulsive approach adopted by both conductors is admirably suited to this work though Gilbert has the advantage of incomparably better sound. It must be mentioned, however, that the elephant in the room is the rival Nielsen cycle from Sakari Oramo and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra on the BIS label that began with a stunning performances of the 4th and 5th Symphonies. Many collectors will surely wish to wait for both cycles to be completed, hopefully by next year, the 150th anniversary of Nielsen’s birth. In the meantime this latest release can be confidently recommended.

TCHAIKOVSKY: THE NUTCRACKER, Bergen Philharmonic, Neeme Järvi CHANDOS SACD CHSA 5144  With this release of ‘The Nutcracker’ Neeme Järvi completes his splendid accounts of the three great Tchaikovsky ballets with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra for Chandos. The qualities that made the previous releases of ‘Swan Lake’ and ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ so memorable are once again in abundance. They include polished orchestral playing from the Bergen Philharmonic and superb recorded sound from Ralph Couzens and his colleagues in the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK). Neeme Järvi’s penchant for fast tempi in much of the music he conducts has sometimes led to accusations of superficiality in his performances – a view to which I would not subscribe, so it is worth pointing out that although the complete ballet is accommodated uncut on a single SACD, his overall timing for the work is 84’35”. On the other hand Antal Dorati and the LSO on his classic Mercury Living Presence SACD release (divided between 2 discs) is dispatched in 78’52” while another very recommendable single disc version (unfortunately not available on SACD) from Valery Gergiev and his Mariinsky Orchestra has a playing time of 80’58”.That said, the ‘Ouverture’ that begins the work is taken at a fast pace, but thanks to the crisp articulation of the Bergen players it does not sound rushed. For most of what follows Järvi continues to press forward, capturing perfectly the excitement and expectation of Christmas Eve in the Silberhaus home, but gradually becoming more expansive from the departure of the guests to the end of the Act. The magical transformation scene (Tr.7) and subsequent battle with the mice (Tr.8) – the latter heralded by a more realistic gunshot than the feeble efforts heard on some other recordings – is absolutely gripping. In this Act’s final Tableau the well drilled singing of the Bergen Pikekor and Bergen Guttekor gives much pleasure. The opening of Act II, as Clara and her Prince journey to the Kingdom of Sweets, finds Järvi in more relaxed and expansive mood allowing extra time for one to appreciate both the refinement and panache of his fine orchestra. The familiar dances of the ‘Divertissement are delivered with an affectionate warmth not always associated with this conductor and mention must be made of the harpist Johannes Wik, whose immaculate delivery of the harp cadenza at the opening of the ‘Valse des Fleurs’ (Tr.19) and artistry elsewhere delights the ear. The work’s final sections are notable for the exuberance Järvi brings to them, though why he makes an unexpected and sudden brief ritardando at 2.24 in the ‘Valse finale’ (Tr.24) is anybody’s guess. It almost goes without saying that the open and generous acoustic of the Grighallen Bergen where the ballet was recorded last December is ideal for Tchaikovsky’s marvellous orchestration to be savoured. The sound is immaculately balanced by the engineers and amazingly vivid in both 2-channel stereo and 5.0 channel surround. Though the virtues of rival versions of this much recorded ballet should not be overlooked, the considerable advantage of Järvi’s compelling performance on single hybrid SACD will make it a first choice for many listeners and it warrants an unqualified recommendation.


Netrebko & Barenboim: New Four Last Songs from DG

As Richard Strauss’s 150th anniversary year draws to a close, Anna Netrebko, Daniel Barenboim and the Berlin Staatskapelle unite for a live recording for DG of the composer’s remarkable Four Last Songs and symphonic poem Ein Heldenleben.  This is Anna Netrebko’s first recording of the Four Last Songs – the swansong of the then 84-year-old Strauss. Her performance with Barenboim and the Staatskapelle was captured in Berlin at a benefit concert at the Philharmonie in August 2014 on behalf of the Staatsoper renovation.


Carminana Burana – the photonovel: new CD from Anima Eterna & Jos van Immerseel

Jos van Immerseel and Anima Eterna’s new recording of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana is a result of the Anima Eterna team’S complete rethinking of the music. To help show how they have created an entertaining photo novel to tell the story of the project. All the pages have now been published and may be seen at