Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta from Deutsche Grammophone

January: following Anna Netrebko’s  success in Salzburg’s Il Trovatore production, Deutsche Grammophone presents an opera release for the start of 2015, recorded during her U-Live tour in 2012. Anna Netrebko performs Iolanta, the title role of one of Tchaikovsky’s most passionate, evocative scores and one of opera’s most enigmatic figures.  In this recording, Emmanuel Villaume – with whom Netrebko collaborated on the successful Souvenirs album – leads a stellar cast comprising a number of Russia’s biggest opera stars (Markov, Skorokhodov, Kowaljow).  Netrebko is scheduled for eight staged performances of Iolanta at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in January-February 2015, as well as a Royal Albert Hall date later in the season.

Pianistic Fireworks: KHACHATURIAN and PROKOFIEV

KHACHATURIAN/PROKOFIEV PIANO CONCERTOS Nareh Arghamanyan, Ruundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, Alain Altogluu/PentaTone PTC 5186 510 SACD  Nareh Arghamanyan’s first recording for PentaTone of solo piano works by Rachmaninov showed her to be an artist of surprising maturity who combines musical acuity with a prodigious technique. Her follow-up disc of the Liszt Piano Concertos confirmed one’s favourable opinion of her potential in virtuoso repertoire. Her latest release couples Prokofiev’s 3rd Piano Concerto – his most popular and most recorded – with the Piano Concerto of her fellow Armenian Aram Khachaturian, a work rarely appearing on concert programmes and even less frequently on disc and as in the earlier Liszt recording she is partnered here by the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by the young French-born conductor Alain Altinoglu with whom she obviously has a close rapport. Khachaturian’s Piano Concerto dates from 1936 and attempted to revive the bravura pianistic traditions of Liszt while at the same time introducing material in the concerto that derived from Armenian folk sources, though the composer denied quoting directly from such sources. The bass drum thwack that opens the work resonates impressively in PentaTone ‘s vivid recording made in the Haus des Rundfunks, RBB Berlin in October 2013 and Nareh Arghamanyan’s decisive first entry illustrates both the physical strength of her playing and her virtuosity as the movement proceeds. She plays the first of the movement’s two long solo passages with a relaxed improvisatory feel and brings great exuberance and stunning virtuosity to the second. The haunting central ‘Andante’ begins and ends with the bass clarinet extemporising under soft chords on muted strings before the gentle entry of the soloist. Khachaturian’s scoring calls for a most unusual, and frankly bizarre sounding instrument – the flexatone, to be used in this movement. For this recording, however, Alain Altinoglu, has replaced the flexatone by a musical saw which certainly blends better with the strings and sounds here little different from a theremin or an ondes martinot. The jazzy and sometimes even orgiastic finale is given a terrific performance from both soloist and orchestra, the music only slowing for the brilliant cadenza before building to a restatement of the first movement’s opening theme and then driving to its thrilling and emphatic final chords. Though this concerto has often been accused of brashness and empty rhetoric it is still worth an occasional outing especially when heard in such a beautifully recorded and committed performance as this one by Nareh Arghamanyan. The Prokofiev concerto that follows faces much tougher competition from countless rival recordings and though Arghaman’s playing has all the necessary fire power her performance fails to match the best of the SACD alternative versions in this piece that include those from Byron Janis, Freddy Kempff and Denis Matsuev. Thanks to the rather cautious tempi adopted by Altinoglu and Arghamanyan her account lacks the flamboyance of those mentioned above and its slightly restrained quality, while sometimes appropriate in the slower section of the work, misses some of the composer’s wit and panache in the outer movements. It must, however, be said that the orchestral contribution could hardly be finer. I can’t recall a recording that reveals so much subtle detail in Prokofiev’s orchestral writing and needless to say PentaTone’s sound quality is beyond reproach. Those seeking this release for the Khachaturian Piano Concerto need not hesitate.

PentaTone Revisits Quad Classics; Plus Ravel, Bach & Grieg


PENTATONE QUADRAPHONIC CLASSICS: MOZART: PIANO CONCERTOS NOS. 14 & 26, Berliner Philharmoniker, Tamas Vasary/RAVEL: ORCHESTRAL WORKS, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa/GIULIANI, CASTELNUOVO-TEDESCO,VILLA-LOBOS: Guitar Concertos  Narciso Yepes, London Symphony Orchestra, Luis Navarro/BACH: BRANDENBURG CONCERTOS, Members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, Pinchas Zukerman/PentaTone SACD For those (such as this writer) who remember the original LP issues of quadraphonic recordings decades ago there is – generally — one abiding memory: the fact was that very few of us possessed the necessary equipment to hear the multi-channel facility of the discs as the engineers intended us to, and (as a corollary to that) when played on ordinary stereophonic equipment of the day (when mixed down to 2 channels), such discs didn’t sound notably more impressive than ordinary recordings. But what a luxury in the 21st-century to hear these discs, not only as they were originally intended, but clearly sounding better on SACD than they would have done when originally recorded, given the technological limitations of the long-playing record. PentaTone have led the way in making this material available again in their valuable reissues (which includes material previously unreleased) and this latest batch, attractively presented, not only offers superlative sound values (as one would expect) but reinvigorates some classic performances, such as the Tamas Vasary Mozart piano concertos 14 and 26 issued here. Another revelation is the set of the Bach Brandenburg Concertos, performed by a larger group than one might expect these days, but still sounding immensely musical and sympathetic under the direction of Pinchas Zukerman. If the sound of the Ozawa Ravel disc is a little opaque, it is particularly pleasurable to hear the great guitarist Narciso Yepes in recordings that do justice to his definitive performances of the guitar concerto repertoire.

VIVALDI: SEVEN WITH A STROKE!/THE FOUR SEASONS Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, Ariadne Daskalalakis/Tacet B205 & Polish Chamber Philharmonic, Daniel Gaede/Tacet S163  Forget the gimmicky title of the first disc; this is a superlative collection of Vivaldi concerti delivered with affection, in which the listener (as is customary with the Tacet label) is placed via complete surround sound directly in the centre of the musicians, will be rear channels used for individual instruments rather than to provide concert hall ambience. There are those object to this strategy, but there is no denying the immense effectiveness of this immersive experience – and naysayers could consider that this is how the musicians themselves experience a performance. The players have the absolute measure of Vivaldi, as in the sister recording of The Four Seasons from the same company, which equally does justice to the familiar counterpoint, allowing individual stands strands to be heard with maximum clarity (and as a codicil, Tacet’s issue of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos also deserves a hearty welcome).

ENGLISH SONG John Shirley Quirk, baritone, various pianists/Heritage HTGCD 283/4  While Bryn Terfel holds the crown today, there was a time when Britain’s finest baritone was undoubtedly the late John Shirley-Quirk. The Liverpool-born singer’s beautiful timbre, consummate musicianship and (notably) attention to detail in lyrics placed him firmly at the top of the tree. I once interviewed him in his native city before his appearance in Britten’s opera Death in Venice, and before the interview he was singing in rehearsal some of the material which had just arrived from Britten — it’s musical moments like that that one does not forget. Shirley-Quirk’s three early LPs for the Saga label were acclaimed as being among the glories of the gramophone, and his performance of such works as Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel were long considered to be definitive, although later performances by such singers as the aforementioned Bryn Terfel have challenged that supremacy. But here are those splendid recitals on two CDs, admittedly showing their age but sounding better than they have ever done – and they are a reminder what an asset the late baritone was to the English music scene.

MCCABE:  SYPHONY NO.1, etc., National Youth Orchestra of Scotland, John McCabe/NAXOS 8.571370  A welcome  collection of several important recordings of the music of the celebrated British composer John McCabe, none of which has appeared before on CD. Admittedly, the age of the recordings (dating from the 60s to the 80s) means that none of them is in the highest of fi, but a certain amount of tape hiss is more than acceptable when several gaps in the McCabe recorded repertoire are plugged here (we have had the Second Symphony for some time, but this is the first appearance on CD of its predecessor). The First Symphony, heard here in its only recording to date by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under John Shashall, is a work of keen intelligence and kinetic energy. The Fantasy on a Theme of Liszt is a consummately crafted work, performed with masterful skill by McCabe at the piano. Scored for very large orchestra, ‘Tuning’ develops layers of texture and sonority of overwhelming richness in which the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland revel – this is the only recording of John McCabe as conductor.

R. STRAUSS: ELEKTRA, Evelyn Herlitzius, Various artists, Essa-Pekka Salonen/Bel-Air Classiques Blu-ray BAC410  in terms of opera on Blu-ray, we are in something of a golden age with a variety of choices available to listeners. Proof? Here is another splendid Blu-ray recording of Richard Strauss’s masterpiece Elektra to join the several impressive sets available. This was the last production ever staged by Patrice Chéreau, and this disc preserves one of the most striking opera events of recent years.

BEETHOVEN: Ah! Perfido, etc./CHERUBINI: Symphony, etc. Maria Bengtsson, Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne, Bertrand de Billy/MDG 940 1854-6 SACD With the very able Maria Bengtsson accompanied by the Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne conducted by Bertrand de Billy, these pieces are given the best possible advocacy; particularly welcome as these are the first performances in the surround sound medium.

WAGNER: THE SYMPHONIC RING, Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie, Daniel Klajner/Coviello COV 91417 SACD while Wagnerian purists may sniff at the notion of orchestral versions of The Ring (or ‘bleeding chunks of Wagner’ as these excerpts used to be known), it’s clear that many listeners do not share this disapproval, as a variety of such discs continues to appear. This latest one is different from all of its predecessors in not attempting to condense Wagner’s 15-hour masterpiece onto a single disc, and we are given two well-filled SACDs with virtually every important orchestral passage included (the arrangements are by Andreas N Tarkmann) – and in performances of great authority. Some of the transcriptions of vocal lines (such as the ‘Wintersturme’ duet from Die Walkure, for instance) are less successful, but the disc is sheer delight for those not given to snobbishness.

RAVEL: DAPHNIS ET CHLOE, Beethoven Orchester Bonn, Stefan Blunier MDG 937 1863-6 SACD Ravel’s beguiling ballet has been particularly lucky in the surround sound medium, with excellent performances on disc from such conductors as Haitink and Gergiev. Here is another exemplary reading which finds much of the music’s poetry and drama in impressive sound.

BACH: THE ART OF FUGUE/THE WELL TEMPERED CLAVIER Angela Hewitt, piano; John Butt, harpsichord/Hyperion & Linn Those who have acquired the comprehensive multidisc set by Angela Hewitt of Bach’s keyboard music will need little persuasion to acquire this new edition of The Art of Fugue by the pianist, played with her customary sensitivity and precision. More Bach keyboard music is available in the Linn set of The Well-Tempered Clavier played by John Butt which utilises recent editions, allowing the listener to experience the latest possible stage of Bach’s thoughts for each book. Many listeners (such as this writer) will now prefer the music played on a modern concert piano, but John Butt makes the best case for this music on a harpsichord — if, that is, you don’t tire of the limited harpsichord timbre.

GRIEG: COMPLETE SYMPHONIC WORKS VOLUME 4, Herbert Schuch, piano, WDR Sinf., Eivind Aadkand/Audite 92.670 SACD With Volume 4, this commendable Audite series finally gets around to Grieg’s most popular work, his warhorse Piano Concerto, enterprisingly coupled with what is perhaps the composer’s least-known music, his withdrawn Symphony in C Minor. The latter is hardly essential listening, but Grieg aficionados will welcome this sensitive performance which makes a good case for it, and the concerto is given a reading of great spirit and colour.

TCHAIKOVSKY SERENADE FOR STRINGS IN C/BARTOK DIVERTIMENTO FOR STRING ORCHESTRA LSO String Ensemble, Roman Simovic/LSO Live LSO 0752 SACD A reminder – if reminder were needed– just how world-class the string section of the London Symphony Orchestra is, now finally the equal of the orchestra’s celebrated brass section, the latter long considered among the finest in the world. Both pieces here are given performances of great authority.

CLASSICAL CD CHOICE CD OF THE MONTH: BACH: BRANDENBURG CONCERTOS, Floreligium/Channel Classics CCSA 35914 SACD  Those looking for pointed, authentic-sounding performances of these imperishable masterpieces in multi-channel now have a variety of choices, but this lively set (in a new order) by Floreligium is particularly recommendable, and at a stroke joins the finest available.

SZYMANOWSKI : SYMPHONY NO.1 / LOVE SONGS OF HAFIZ, OP.26/ SYMPHONY NO.3, OP.27  Ben Johnson (tenor), BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Edward Gardner/CHANDOS SACD CHSA 5143  Chandos is a label celebrated for its attention to repertoire in which orchestration is a crucial element, so it’s hardly surprising that the company’s Szymanowski series has proved to be a winner seeing off all competition — which is very much the case with this latest issue in which Edward Gardner returns with the BBC Symphony Orchestra to the intoxicating orchestral music of Szymanowski in their third disc devoted to the composer. Tenor Ben Johnson joins Gardner and the BBC SO here as a soloist in two works. Szymanowski’s Symphony No. 1 was composed in 1907 while he was still in his twenties. Stylistically it belongs to his early period, heavily influenced by the late-Romantic style of Wagner and Strauss. The exquisite Love Songs of Hafiz for tenor soloist and orchestra are transitional works. Composed in 1911, they represent a move toward his middle period marked by a fascination with oriental themes, here reflected in the choice to set 14th Century Persian poetry. Scored for a huge orchestra with choir and tenor soloist, Szymanowski’s Symphony No. 3 ‘Song of the Night’ is one his masterpieces.

TCHAIKOVSKY: THE NUTCRACKER, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Neeme Järvi/CHANDOS SACD CHSA 5144  For those who have been collecting the Järvi/Chandos recordings of the Tchaikovsky ballets, this final issue will be unmissable. This complete, uncut version of The Nutcracker follows The Sleeping Beauty (CHSA 5113(2)) and Swan Lake (CHSA 5124 (2)). The Nutcracker draws its influences from both Hoffmann’s and Dumas’s tales of the same name, and for this recording, Neeme Järvi and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra have re-explored Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece together, in order to offer a completely new experience of one of the most-performed ballets in musical history.

SOMETHING’S GOTTA GIVE: Songs by Jerome Kern & Hammerstein, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Lerner & Loewe et al. Simon Keenlyside (baritone) Scarlett Strallen (soprano), BBC Concert Orchestra, David Charles Abell/CHANDOS CHAN 10838   The history of classical singers tackling Broadway material from the great American songbook has been distinctly spotty, with few singers managing to find the nuance that (say) Frank Sinatra routinely found in the songs of Gershwin et al. Jessye Norman, for instance, despite the beauty of tone, always sounded overbearing in such repertoire (with the odd felicitous exception). Simon Keenlyside, however, joins the ranks of such singers as Thomas Allen in knowing exactly how to deliver such songs, shading down the voice, for instance when necessary. Scarlett Strallen partners Keenlyside in duets and sings two numbers on her own. They are joined by David Charles Abell, a musician steeped in the tradition of musical theatre, who conducts the BBC Concert Orchestra the original orchestral arrangements, a number of which have been specially restored for this recording.

KHACHATURIAN/PROKOFIEV PIANO CONCERTOS Nareh Arghamanyan, Ruundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, Alain Altogluu/PentaTone PTC 5186 510 SACD  (N.B. Graham Williams’ review of this disc appears elsewhere)This is the first appearance in the surround sound medium for the Khachaturian piano concerto, and it is generally a splendid performance – without, perhaps, the last ounce of dynamism to be found in (for instance) the Chandos recording of this piece by Constantine Orbellian (stereo only). Fewer reservations about the dynamic take on the Prokofiev 3rd, which is delivered with something close to the requisite amount of panache.

Ed Hughes picks up British Composer Award

Lewes-based composer, Ed Hughes, whose 2013 CD/DVD When The Flame Dies was reviewed in  Classical CD Choice on 11.11.13, was in London last night to receive a British Composers Award for his liturgical piece ‘Chaconne for Jonathan Harvey’. This solo work for organ was commissioned by Christopher Batchelor as part of the 2013 London Festival of Contemporary Church Music, with funds from the PRS for Music Foundation. The work is in memory of Jonathan Harvey whom Hughes assisted as amanuensis on his final choral composition in summer 2012, ‘Plainsongs for Peace and Light’. Hughes’ work refers to a couple of Harvey pieces – quoting a plainsong in ‘Plainsongs for Peace and Light’ and a chord pattern from ‘The Angels’ (choral work from 1995). The work was first performed by Michael Waldron on 15 April 2013 in St Pancras Church, London, as part of choral evensong, and broadcast live on BBC Radio 3.


Scandalous Overtures with Robert Greenberg

Robert Greenberg is the host of the new show Scandalous Overtures on Ora.Tv. This new series provides an interesting look into the lives and background of the world’s most beloved classical musicians reveals the shocking stories behind history’s most appreciated classical musicians, the original bad boys of music. Each episode focuses on a conspiracy, or a dirty little secret from the life of a composer. From Mozart to Beethoven to Tchaikovsky, expert Robert Greenberg shares the and outrageous tales of murder, drugs, sex and scandal from some of the most famous classical musicians.