Solti’s Ring on a Single Blu-Ray Audio Disc

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WAGNER: DER RING DES NIBELUNGEN Nilsson, Windgassen et al, Vienna Philharmonic, Georg Solti/Decca Blu-Ray Audio 478 6748  In the long history of recorded music, there are very few recordings can be claimed as the greatest achievement of the medium. But even non-Wagnerians are prepared to acknowledge that Solti’s Ring – the first compete stereo recording –may be the summit of the art. Most of the of those who possessed that bulky but impressive LP boxed set as the centrepiece of their classical collection will have replaced it with various CD upgrades over the years, and may have been slightly wary of the much-trumpeted new single disc Blu-ray audio issue which – amazingly – compresses the entire 14 hours of the cycle onto a single disc. It now arrives in a more compact package: a handsome box with complete libretti, and everything you have heard about it is true. It is – let’s not mince words – a quite amazing achievement. The sound quality is so clear and wide-ranging that the operas sound as if they were recording yesterday; what’s more, noise reduction techniques have left the upper register clear and pellucid while taking out any inherent hiss. It is completely unnecessary to rehearse the merits of this set (or the handful of qualifications), Wagner’s magnum opus in the Solti/John Culshaw reading is simply de rigueur. If one has a single caveat, it is regarding the lack of documentation, which fails to point out the fact that each individual opera has been allocated (for access) its own button on the Blu-ray control: red, yellow, green and blue bring up Das Rheingold etc. separately. It took me a while to figure this out, but perhaps this was an intelligence test that I failed. Nevertheless, this set is quite simply an unsurpassed achievement, and having it on a single disc is a justification for modern advances in Blu-ray audio technology.

WALTON: SYMPHONY NO. 2 / CELLO CONCERTO* / IMPROVISATIONS ON AN IMPROMPTU OF BENJAMIN BRITTEN, Paul Watkins (cello)* / BBC Symphony Orchestra / Edward Gardner/CHANDOS CHSA 5153  Several decades ago, this writer would ask (at intervals) the conductor Andre Previn how Walton’s 3rd Symphony was progressing ; the composer (living in his idyllic Capri garden retreat) had tentatively promised that he would provide a successor to the sardonic Second, but as Previn ruefully admitted to me, it would probably never be written. Which is a shame, as the two existing symphonies are so different; perhaps the massive Sibelian First and its more compact successor might have been set off in an appropriate fashion by a third symphony. The second has never quite enjoyed the acclaim it clearly deserves (not even when Previn set down an impressive account for EMI), but Edward Gardner’s highly impressive new disc (in which he conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra) is a worthy successor to his much-acclaimed recording of the composer’s Symphony No. 1 and Violin Concerto, a notable bestseller for Chandos. Gardner’s clear sympathy for the music is luminous in every bar. Unlike the recent BIS/Hughes recording, the Chandos engineers have set the prominent piano part some distance back in the orchestral mix, which those who have enjoyed this piquant detail of orchestration may find disappointing. But everything else about this performance is exemplary, with Gardner coaxing out every nuance of the music and its nervous electric energy. Walton’s Second and final Symphony was commissioned for the 750th anniversary, in 1957 – 58, of the founding of the city of Liverpool, but, delayed by the composition of the Cello Concerto. It was only premiered in 1960. It is scored for a large orchestra, utilising as a model as the Third Symphony of Albert Roussel, in its concision and the use of the key of G minor. The Cello Concerto, brilliantly played here, was premiered in London in 1957 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra itself. The last piece on this winning SACD has an improvisatory nature, and is based on the ‘Impromptu’ of Benjamin Britten’s Piano Concerto.

MAHLER: SYMPHONY NUMBER 5/SYMPHONY NUMBER 9, Gewandhuas Orchester/Riccardo Chailly/ACCENTUS BLU-RAY ACC 12O284/ACC 10299  Riccardo Chailly’s Mahler has long been one of the great glories of modern recording, channelling the drama and insight of the great conductors of the past (from Bruno Walter to Leonard Bernstein) but enshrining his performances in recordings that make his predecessor’s discs sound positively antediluvian in terms of recorded sound. Vying for the upper echelons of the audiophile market now are Blu-ray audio discs, as these two impressive performances from Accentus presented on Blu-ray, as opposed to the SACD format with which they are increasingly coexisting. And in terms of sheer sonic splendour (leaving aside the felicities of the performances), these are among the most wide-ranging and exhilarating since the classic Michael Tilson Thomas performances from San Francisco. Of the two symphonies, Chailly manages an impeccable balance of sensitivity and dynamism in the Fifth, while the adagietto is limpidly beautiful, even allowing the listener to forget just how hackneyed this piece has become. It perhaps does not quite find the final ounce of tragic grander in the monumental slow movements of the 9th Symphony, the performance is still among the best that this much-recorded piece has enjoyed in recent years. If you possess a Blu-ray machine and a decent speaker setup I have three words of advice: do not hesitate.

WEINBERG: CHAMBER SYMPHONY NO. 3, OP. 151 / CHAMBER SYMPHONY NO. 4, OP 153. Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra / Thord Svedlund/CHANDOS CHSA 5146  Those who remember some impressive Melodiya discs of Weinberg symphonies (when he went under the de-Semitised name of Vaignberg) will be celebrating the positive avalanche of new recordings of his music, and this new disc is one of the most intriguing. The ongoing SACD series of orchestral works by Weinberg now explores some lesser-known, late works of the composer. This disc features the last two Chamber Symphonies, which reflect a largely hidden, yet still busy period for the composer. The Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra, recording with Chandos for the first time, is conducted by the able Thord Svedlund. The Chamber Symphony No. 4 is among the last music that Weinberg completed, and has a valedictory air, suggesting his unhappy final years, It is a piece of immense feeling. The Chamber Symphony No. 3 is aligned with the fifth String Quartet No. 5, Op. 27 and is yet another neglected Weinberg masterpiece.

RICHARD STRAUSS: FEUERSNOT Markus Eiche, Lars Woldt, Simone Schneider, Wilhelm Schwinghammer, Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Kinderchor des Staatstheaters am Gärtnerplatz, Münchner Rundfunkorchester, Ulf Schirmer/CPO 777920-2  A very welcome issue for one of Richard Strauss’s most neglected operas; this is a set which makes a strong case for the piece. Just after the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth, CPO’s concert performance of Feuersnot reveals Strauss’s riff on Wagner as something of a hidden gem, with Ulf Schirmer and his cast nailing the opera’s quirky mix of homage and parody.

SIBELIUS: SYMPHONIES 2 & 7 BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Thomas Sondergard/LINN CKD462  Perfectly serviceable performances of these two very different Sibelius symphonies, but it’s hard to judge the readings objectively, given the decision to record the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in a rather non-analytic acoustic. Sibelius’s master of orchestration certainly makes its mark, but some incidental detail remains opaque, and that is not helpful in the case of this glorious music. For those who do not possess (for instance); the complete SACD set of Sibelius symphonies on DG by Järvi – also, it has to be observed not without its problems — this might be a competitive issue, but one hopes that more incisive readings and a more wide-ranging recording will accompany future issues and resources.

SAINT-SAËNS: SYMPHONY NO. 3 IN C MINOR, ETC., Orchestre National de Lyon, Vincent Warnier/Naxos Blu-ray Audio NBD0045 Blu-ray audio continues to make its mark with yet another stunningly recorded disc, and this Saint-Saëns collection was recorded to celebrate the inauguration of the newly restored former organ of the Palais du Trocadéro and Palais de Chaillot in Paris. The Orchestre National de Lyon and their organist-in-residence, Vincent Warnier, present two major works for organ and orchestra by Camille Saint-Saëns, both of which are historically linked with the great Cavaillé-Coll organs. Saint-Saëns’ inclusion of organ and piano in his Symphony No. 3 in C minor was unprecedented at the time, and is a spectacular example of music both resplendent and grandiose. This is coupled here with the rare and poignant Cyprès et Lauriers, under the baton of Leonard Slatkin.

PETRASSI: CORO DI MORTI* / QUATTRO INNI SACRI† / PARTITA / NOCHE OSCURA* Giorgio Berrugi (tenor)† /Vasily Ladyuk (baritone)† / Coro Teatro Regio Torino* Orchestra Teatro Regio Torino / Gianandrea Noseda/ CHAN 10840  when will it end? When will the enterprising recording company Chandos run out of neglected composers for new advocacy? Not for some time, if this collectable disc is anything to go by. This new Petrassi recording with Gianandrea Noseda and his Italian forces is part of the company’s ongoing Italian music series. As with Noche oscura and Quattro inni sacri, composed round 1950, the Coro di morti is proof positive that of Petrassi’s skills at the beginning of the 1940s. It remains one of the most admired and frequently performed of his compositions. According to Cardinal Andrea Lanza, the work, composed and premiered during the Second World War, reveals a marked ‘opposition in discourse… between the solitude of man and the destruction surrounding him’, all of which is clearly relayed in the harrowing contrast between relaxed choral lines on the one hand and solid conglomeration of instruments on the other. The Partita is one of the earliest works Petrassi composed.

NIELSEN: Symphony No. 1; Symphony No. 3 ‘Sinfonia Espansiva’ Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, Sakari Oramo BIS SACD 2048 For those of us (such as this writer) who are enjoying the current live performances by Oramo as he works his way through the unique symphonic cycle of Carl Nielsen, it’s a reminder that we are in something of a golden age for the composer. Colin Davis’s Indian summer recordings were set down with the LSO and were a remarkable achievement – as this latest cycle is proving. The recent recording of the Fifth Symphony with its aggressive side-drum was one of the most impressive since Horenstein’s groundbreaking recording, and this new coupling is almost equally competitive in a crowded field The first volume of this new cycle was widely acclaimed upon its release in December 2013 (BIS2028). Symphony No. 1 owes much to Schumann and was completed in 1892, when the composer was still in his mid-twenties. Symphony No. 3 marks Nielsen’s true breakthrough, twenty years after the first symphony, and rapidly established itself as a mainstay of concert repertoire for Europe’s leading orchestras.

BRUCKNER: SYMPHONY NO.4, ‘ROMANTIC’, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Manfred Honeck/Reference Recordings SACD FR-713SACD Bruckner’s avowedly religious sympathies are less in evidence in his Symphony No. 4 in E-flat major (“Romantic”). This secular, pantheistic symphony is perhaps his most popular work, and The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and ther Music Director Manfred Honeck have – in a very short space of time – become one of the most exciting teams in the modern classical world, with recordings that combine superlative musicianship with unparalleled recording quality (courtesy of Reference Recordings). And so (as with the previous Dvořák/Janaček coupling) it again proves here, as we are offered a striking  new interpretation of this imperishable masterpiece, The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and Honeck present the 1878/80 version. the version that was utilised for the symphony’s premiere in 1881.

DEBUSSY: IMAGES, LA MER, ETC. Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Lan Shui/BIS SACD1837 When the SACD medium was a new venture, early adopters were keen to discover favourite works in the new medium. It’s a measure of the success of the medium (despite its being precipitately dropped by major companies such as DG) that we now have a variety of choice for such masterpiece as these Debussy classics. And Lan Shui proves to be among the most able interpreters of these pieces; no surprise in the case of this reading of La Mer, which has previously appeared in another coupling. This new Images proves to be highly competitive, if not quite rivalling great performances of the past – though the sound quality here is, of course, state of the art.

MUSIC FOR ALFRED HITCHCOCK, Danish National Symphony Orchestra, John Mauceri/Toccata Classics TOOCC 0241 With music from the likes of Bernard Herrmann, Franz Waxman and Dimitri Tiomkin, this excellent disc is a salutary reminder how judicious the Master of Suspense was in his choice of composers. Admittedly the original soundtrack recording have (in most cases) more bite, but it’s useful to have these superb scores on one disc in ear-pinging modern sound.

DVORAK: STRING QUARTETS 10 & 11, Zemlinsky Quartet/PRAGA DIGITALSPRD/DSD250 305  Performances of great colour and élan by the Zemlinsky Quartet, finding new things in these idiomatic pieces. The surround sound medium is used with sensitivy.

SCRIABIN/MEDNTER PIANO CONCERTOS BIS SACD 2088  I suppose I should nail my colours to the mask regarding this release; despite the following it has obtained in recent years, Medtner’s piano concerto remains something of a closed book to me, its charm elusive — even in a performance as persuasive (and as well recorded) as this one. But I have no such reservations about the Scriabin which is here given a performance to rival the classic reading by Vladimir Ashkenazy. Yevgeny Sudbin’s releases are eagerly awaited, and the pianist confronts the difficulties of these works with aplomb, aided by the Bergen Philharmonic and their chief conductor Andrew Litton.

VIVALDI: THE FOUR SEASONS Polish Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra, Daniel Gaede, violin Tacet 0163-4  In their customary piquant technique of placing the listener dead centre in the surround sound mix, this is a novel and ear-pleasing approach to an over-familiar masterpiece. A lithe and lean performance enhances the experience.

WEINBERG: Violin Concerto & Symphony No. 4, Kaspszyk, Warsaw Philharmonic / Ilya Gringolts / Jacek/Warner Classics 0825646224838  Yet more Weinberg. The Grammy Award-winning Warsaw Philharmonic, the most significant Polish orchestra of international renown, has begun a major new recording project with Warner Classics, under the baton of Artistic Director Jacek Kaspszyk: a new album of orchestral music by Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996). The album cements Weinberg’s growing posthumous reputation as one of the most important symphonists of the 20th century (he wrote no fewer than 22 works in the genre), along with his mentor Dmitri Shostakovich, the latter counting among the younger composer’s admirers. The Weinberg release follows the Warsaw Philharmonic’s Grammy Award win in 2012 and marks the orchestra’s first recording with its new maestro and artistic director Jacek Kaspszyk, renowned for his innovative approach to programming and his championing of new music.

IMPROMPTUS: CHOPIN/SCHUBERT/FAURÉ, Tomasz Lis/Klangoglo CDKL1511 A very promising debut album from Tomasz Lis, whose approach to these pieces is traditional but full of subtlety and sensitivity.

MENDELSSOHN: CALM SEA AND PROSPEROUS VOYAGE / SYMPHONY NO. 2 ‘HYMN OF PRAISE’* Mary Bevan (soprano I)* / Sophie Bevan (soprano II)* / Benjamin Hewlett (tenor)* / CBSO Chorus*/ City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Edward Gardner. Chandos SACD CHSA 5151  Not everyone has been persuaded by this ambitious cycle of Mendelssohn symphonies from Chandos, and certainly the conductor’s Walton cycle (see above) is much more of an unalloyed success. But there are very good things here not least in the performance of Hymn of Praise in which Gardner manages to some degree to shake off the fusty Victorian ethos of the piece. This is the third recording in the Mendelssohn in Birmingham series, with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and its Principal Guest Conductor.The symphony is synthesis of Cantata and symphony, and remains obstinately non-heterogeneous. But a good case is made for it here.

War and Peace from Alia Vox

War and Peace, a striking 2CD book release from Alia Vox, is a major issue for the label. The set looks at music composed during the 30 Years’ War and from the War of the Spanish succession from 1614 – 1714. It features such composers as: Lully, Handel, Charpentier, Scheidt, Biber, Schein, Cabanilles, Dumanoir, Rosenmüller, Jenkins, Cererols and  Blow