BRAHMS: SYMPHONY NO. 2; TRAGIC OVERTURE; ACADEMIC FESTIVAL OVERTURE, Budapest Festival Orchestra, Ivan Fischer/CHANNEL CLASSICS CCS SA 33514 SACD The photograph of a smiling Ivan Fisher presented on the cover of this SACD suggests a knowing prescience of the glorious performances of the three Brahms works that are recorded on this disc. This is the second release in Ivan Fischer’s gradually emerging cycle of the Brahms Symphonies with his Budapest Festival Orchestra and is, in every respect, as outstanding as the first. That the Budapest Festival Orchestra is in superlative form here is clear from the opening of the work where the lithe strings float in over a cushion of warm horns and beautifully blended winds. Timpani are notably clear even in the softest passages and Fischer makes the exposition repeat in the first movement – essential for the work’s overall shape and generally adopted more these days from conductors than it was in the past. Fischer’s interpretation is free of mannerisms that could in any way sour a single bar of what is arguably Brahms’s most beautiful symphony. Tempi throughout all four movements of the symphony are beautifully judged. The pace is relaxed, but always with an underlying forward moving pulse and the conductor’s subtle nuances within his set tempi are natural and unforced. That said, Fischer is not afraid to use a modicum of rubato where appropriate and the portamento he applies at the end of the first movement’s coda after an exquisitely phrased horn solo, seems just perfect to my ears. What perhaps is most remarkable about this reading is the sense that, as with so many recordings by Ivan Fischer, he has approached this symphony as if it was a new discovery for him. Brahms’s two contrasting Overtures make ideal fill-ups to the Symphony and they are both given performances that are equally outstanding. The Tragic Overture receives a fiery and cogent reading – taut, dramatic, expansive and entirely free of bathos. The Academic Festival Overture, built on themes taken from student songs and incidentally Brahms’s most heavily orchestrated work is played with gruff humour – the “Fuchs-Lied – Was kommt da von der Höh?” wittily played by rustic sounding bassoons. Fischer builds up the excitement gradually, and at the final statement of the student song ‘Gaudeamus igitur’ triangle cymbals ring out thrillingly underpinned by a firm bass drum. It is hardly necessary to say that the sound quality of this multi-channel 5.0 DSD recording is exemplary. It combines warmth and exceptional instrumental clarity in a remarkable way aided, of course, by the fine acoustic of the venue – the Palace of Arts, Budapest. The ambience provided by the surround channels is ample but not excessive. In short, this is a disc with impressive performances so thoroughly prepared, expertly executed and superbly recorded that one could not reasonably ask for more. Unreservedly recommended.
NIELSEN: SYMPHONY NO. 1 IN G MINOR;SYMPHONY NO. 3, ‘SINFONIA ESPANSIVA’, Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, Sakari Oramo/BIS 2048 SACD This is the second issue in the Nielsen Symphony cycle being undertaken by Sakari Oramo and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra for BIS. The first release, that coupled the 4th and 5th Symphonies, was greeted with considerable critical acclaim both for Oramo’s clear sighted and exciting interpretation and the superb quality of the BIS recording. It is pleasing to report that this coupling of Nielsen’s early 1st Symphony and his 3rd, the ‘Sinfonia Espansiva of 1910 -11 maintains the excellence of the earlier release in all respects. Tempi in both Symphonies hardly differ from those adopted by Alan Gilbert on his accounts (differently coupled ) with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra on Dacapo Records and while both orchestras perform magnificently for their respective conductors, the playing Oramo elicits from the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, especially in the 1st Symphony, has greater drive and character. The explosive opening movement of the ‘Sinfonia Espansiva’ is beautifully judged; its propulsive energy being captured to the full by Oramo and his fine orchestra. The contrasting ‘Andante pastorale’ is notable for the lovely quality of the soprano and baritone solo voices (Anu Komsi and Karl-Magnus Fredriksson) whose delivery of the melismatic vocal line seems well-nigh perfect. The many fugal passages in the final two movements are beautifully articulated while in the Finale the blazing horns statement of the movement’s main theme bring Oramo’s ripe account of this life-enhancing work to a thrilling conclusion. The recordings took place in the warm and generous acoustic of Stockholm’s Concert Hall in January 2013 (Symphony No. 1) and May 2014 (Symphony No. 3), and engineer Thore Brinkman’s 24/bit / 96kHz recording combines the necessary richness and bite to do full justice to Nielsen’s dynamic scores. This release deserves an unqualified recommendation and makes one impatient for the release of the final instalment (Symphonies 2 and 6) of this excellent cycle during 2015 the Nielsen centenary year.
WEINBERG: CHAMBER SYMPHONIES NOS 3 & 4, Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra, Thord Svedlund/CHANDOS CHSA 5146 SACD Chandos’s fine survey of the orchestral works of Mieczyslaw Weinberg conducted by Thord Svedlund continues with this release of two of the composer’s late works. The two Chamber Symphonies on this beautifully recorded SACD date from the 1990s and show Weinberg’s creative powers to be undimmed even within four years of his death. The ‘Chamber Symphony No. 3 for Strings’ of 1990 is, like its two predecessors, based on the composer’s String Quartets – in this case the Quartet No.5 of 1945. Like Shostakovich in his quartets, Weinberg includes many self quotations throughout the piece, and it is fair to say those who are familiar with the Shostakovich/ Barshai Chamber Symphonies are likely to find much to enjoy here. The sinuous melody that opens the work is described perceptively by David Fanning as stylistically somewhere between Mahler and Bartok. A vigorous scherzo-like movement is followed ‘attacca’ by an eloquent ‘Adagio’ and the work is completed by a finale whose forlorn opening theme proceeds over a steady pizzicato tread in the lower strings before reaching its eventual dissolve into silence. The ‘Chamber Symphony No.4’ of 1992 is, unusually, scored for string orchestra, obbligato clarinet and triangle. The latter instrument only appears in the finale playing just four carefully placed notes. The clarinet part is interpreted with sensitivity and great virtuosity by Johnny Jannesson the principal clarinet of the Norrköping Symphony Orchestra and, as in the previous work, Weinberg makes extensive use of quotations from his earlier compositions. The recordings made in the Konserthuset, Helsingborg (4-7 March 2014) by the experienced team of Lennart Dehn (producer) and Torbjörn Samuelsson (recording engineer) could hardly be bettered in capturing both the acoustic ambience of the hall and the vividness of the Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra’s strings over a wide dynamic range. The exceptionally informative liner notes by David Fanning are invaluable for their insights into both the background to these compositions and their musical content. They also include fascinating photographs of the composer and his Soviet colleagues taken over a number of years. Those who enjoy Weinberg’s music need not hesitate.
BACH: BRANDENBURG CONCERTOS, Florilegium, Ashley Solomon/CHANNEL CLASSICS CCS SA 35914 SACD (2 discs) Each new release from Ashley Solomon’s versatile period instrument group Florilegium is always an exciting prospect. A glance at their extensive discography indicates the wide span of their musical interests ranging from Telemann, Vivaldi, Haydn, Couperin and even extending to three exciting volumes of baroque music from Bolivia. It is therefore surprising to find that this is their first recording of one of the high points of Baroque instrumental music – Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. These six ever popular concertos have received countless recordings over the years and have been performed in many different styles, ranging from elephantine and definitely inauthentic performances of the past to the pared down period performances of more recent times. This new set from Florilegium obviously falls into the latter category, but thanks to Ashley Solomon’s beautifully judged tempi in each of the six concerti and Channel’s breathtakingly vivid 5.0 DSD recording made in the Church of St John the Evangelist, Upper Norwood, London in November last year there is a glow, richness and body to the sound that would be the envy of many orchestras. In an interesting departure from the norm these six concertos are presented here not in the familiar order of the set as presented by Bach to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg in 1721, but in reverse. Disc 1 Concertos 6,5 and 4. Disc 2 Concertos 3, 2 and 1. As Ashley Solomon points out in his excellent booklet notes these concertos were never meant to be performed as a set partly due to the constraints of their widely differing instrumentation, so the order in which they are played is largely unimportant. The sequence chosen by Florilegium simply illustrates the increase in instrumental forces as we move through the concertos, from No.6 with its group of just seven strings to No.1– the grandest and most orchestral of the set – requiring a compliment of 13 players and instrumentation that includes oboes, bassoon, horns and piccolo violin as well as a quintet of strings and harpsichord continuo. There is a natural unforced quality to the music making throughout this set that is immediately engaging, and listener’s will surely be delighted by the virtuosity of the soloists whether it be Terence Charlston’s flamboyant harpsichord solos in No.5, Richard Fomison’s stratospheric trumpet playing in No.2 or the lovely recorder duo of Ashley Solomon and Elspeth Robertson in No. 4. To be fair though, the performances of all twenty one musicians heard here deserve the utmost praise. The recording quality, as I have already indicated, is beyond reproach. Solo instruments are beautifully balanced with a wonderful sense of air around them and their spatial positioning within the sound picture is always perfectly defined. The insatiable public demand for new recordings of the Brandenburg Concertos apparently seems unstoppable, but, in spite of fierce competition, this new release from Florilegium should be at the top of anyone’s shopping list.
SCRIABIN / MEDTNER PIANO CONCERTOS, Yevgeny Subdin, Bergen Philharmonic, Andrew Litton/ BIS-2088 SACD The gloriously romantic main theme of the first movement of Scriabin’s early Piano Concerto is one of those lush surging melodies that remains in one’s mind for days after listening to this work. The composer wrote his only Piano Concerto in 1896 at the age of 24 and, as Yevgeny Subdin reminds us in his thoughtful and enthusiastic liner notes, Scriabin’s debt to Chopin should not be overestimated. It is true that Chopin’s influence can clearly be heard at times in the decorative figurations of the piano writing, but as the work progresses elements of Tchaikovsky and even Rachmaninov are detectable as the young composer tries to find his own unique voice. Subdin brings an almost improvisatory feel to the comparatively brief opening ‘Allegro’ movement and both the sensitivity and crystalline clarity of his playing are as impressive as is to be expected from this exceptionally gifted pianist. The second movement marked ‘Andante’ is a most beautiful set of variations, and here praise must be given to the fine support from Andrew Litton and the Bergen Philharmonic that in every way matches the subtle nuances of Subdin’s performance. It is in the joyful ‘Allegro moderato’ finale – the Concerto’s longest movement that Scriabin lyrical outpourings are at their most appealing. Subdin handles the capricious nature of this movement superbly and Litton even manages to inject a degree of transparency into Scriabin’s sometimes rather opaque scoring. Although Ashkenazy’s 1971 version of this concerto with Maazel and the LPO still sounds remarkably fine for its age, Subdin’s different but equally valid interpretation is now likely to be a first choice for most listeners, particularly if sound quality is of paramount importance. Subdin has become something of a standard bearer for the works of Nikolai Medtner (1881-1951) having, with this release, recorded all three of Medtner’s Piano Concertos for BIS with three different orchestras and conductors. Medtner’s 3rd Piano Concerto, ‘Ballade’, arguably his finest, was premiered by the composer and Sir Adrian Boult in 1944 and it is dedicated to the Maharajah of Mysore, a champion of Medtner and founder of the Medtner Society. Though ostensibly in three movements played without a break, the middle one marked ‘Interludium’ lasts less than a minute and a half so is really just a linking section framed by two fantasia-like outer movements, each of which test the expressive abilities and technical prowess of the solo performer to the limit. The many changes of mood and pace suit Subdin’s style of imaginative pianism and flamboyant virtuosity to perfection while Andrew Litton and his Bergen forces provide a wonderfully rich cushion of glowing orchestral sound. Though this work has received a number of fine recordings on CD most notably in the 1990s from Nikolai Demidenko (Hyperion) and Geoffrey Tozer (Chandos), Subdin’s incendiary account recorded in superb BIS sound will prove irresistible for many.