New Discs from BIS, Linn, Chandos

NIELSEN SYMPHONIES 2 & 6, Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, Sakari Oramo/BIS BIS-2128 SACD  This issue completes Sakai Oramo’s impressive cycle of the Nielsen Symphonies with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra for BIS that now joins the other two complete cycles on SACD from Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO Live) and Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra on the Dacapo label. On this new release Oramo couples the composer’s 2nd and 6th Symphonies (“The Four Temperaments” and “Sinfonia Semplice”) two compositions with radically different complexions yet both unmistakeably the work of the Danish master. In a recent interview Sakari Oramo opined “Nielsen doesn’t allow conductors to display their personalities, because the music is best served by leaving it mostly alone, taking it on trust, producing the drama, giving the fullest energy possible and not stopping for detail.” The adoption of such an approach has already served Oramo very well in the previous two volumes (Symphonies 4 & 5 and Symphonies 1 & 3) and does so here with predictably impressive results. The opening ‘Allegro collerico’ of the 2nd Symphony explodes with almost pyrotechnic force and savagery yet Oramo brings great breadth and nobility to the third movement – marked ‘Andante malincolico’ – allowing abundant rich and expressive playing from the strings of splendid Stockholm orchestra. The Symphony’s second movement flows gracefully at what I consider to be an ideal tempo, while the buoyant finale has all the swagger and confidence that makes this conductor’s Nielsen so thrilling to experience. The same propulsive energy is evident in much of the enigmatic 6th Symphony, but again Oramo allows his players to bring poetry and a sense of mystery to the more reflective sections of the first movement whilst never underplaying the irony and bitterness that permeates much of the work. The final bars where Nielsen, to paraphrase from David Fanning’s excellent liner notes, ‘gives death the finger’ is delivered by Oramo with an appropriate disdainful finality. The sound quality of the 5.0, 24-bit / 96 kHz recording is, as usual from BIS, magnificent with the full dynamic range of the music vividly reproduced. Though the reverberation period of the Stockholm Concert Hall is generous, the BIS engineering team have achieved marvellous clarity throughout. Altogether this is a fitting conclusion to what is arguably the finest and most consistent cycle of Nielsen Symphonies on disc.

ATTERBERG: SYMPHONIES 1 & 5, Neeme Järvi/Chandos SACD CHSA 5154  This the third release in Neeme Järvi’s ongoing survey for Chandos of the orchestral and symphonic works by the Swedish composer Kurt Atterberg (1887-1974). Volume1 and Volume 2 included all the composer’s even numbered symphonies while this latest disc is occupied by the 1st and 5th Symphonies. Those who have acquired the two earlier issues will know exactly what to expect in terms of an interpretive stance from Järvi. As so often, he favours fast speeds that impart a sense of urgency and drive to the outer movements of both symphonies – an approach that in the context of these two dramatic compositions works particularly well. But the lovely second movement of the 1st Symphony is taken at a flowing andante rather than the marked ‘Adagio’, while the central ‘Lento’ of the 5th Symphony, that gives the work its title ‘Sinfonia funebre’, is powerfully lamenting as opposed to anything that suggests funereal solemnity. To be fair, listeners encountering these works for the first time are unlikely to feel that excessive haste is a problem. When, however, one compares Järvi’s slow movements with those on the fine CD versions by Ari Rasilainen and Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, the latter’s more measured tempi and expansive phrasing may be considered by some to bring an extra eloquence to the music that Järvi misses. Conversely the visceral excitement that Järvi engenders in both works, aided by electrifying playing from the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, who have never sounded better, is not to be underestimated. The 5.0 multi-channel recordings (24-bit/96kHz) made in the Gothenburg Concert Hall by the experienced team of Lennart Dehn and Torbjörn Samuelsson in February 2014 (Symphony No. 5) and January 2015 (Symphony No.1) are open and spacious, with a wide stereo spread. Those primarily seeking the best possible sound quality will almost certainly go for this Chandos SACD, though the Rasilainen / CPO recordings made in the 1990s still sound pretty good. Recommended.

MAHLER/SCHOENBERG: LIEDER EINES FAHRENDEN GESELLEN,ETC., Royal Academy of Music Soloists Ensemble, Trevor Pinnock/LINN CKD 481 SACD  In a number of respects this is the most interesting (and certainly varied) release so far in this series for Linn of recordings from Trevor Pinnock and the Royal Academy of Music Soloists Ensemble. As with the first two volumes they explore chamber reductions of works written for larger ensembles in the spirit of Arnold Schoenberg’s ‘Society for Private Musical Performance’ that he founded in 1918 to both create and educate an audience for modern music in post-war Vienna. Mahler’s familiar ‘Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen’ is already so transparent in texture in the composer’s own orchestral version that Schoenberg’s ingenious arrangement does not seem radically different from the original. The four songs are performed by Gareth Brynmor John whose light baritone is well suited to the narrative of the cycle and Pinnock’s flowing accompaniment is delivered with much sensitivity by his talented young players. Only at the climax of the third song ‘Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer’ (2.14) did I miss the force of Mahler’s full orchestra – a piano being no substitute for a cymbal crash. Busoni’s haunting and deeply moving ‘Berceuse élégiaque’ – subtitled ‘The man’s cradle song at his mother’s coffin’– was premièred by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Mahler in his final concert in New York in 1911. Here it is presented in the arrangement by the Schoenberg disciple and pupil Erwin Stein, its poignancy arguably gaining from the spare lines of Stein’s chamber version. Stein did make a nine instrument arrangement of just two of Zemlinsky’s ‘Sechs Gesänge’ Op 13, but here we have a new version of all six made by the conductor, teacher and orchestrator Christopher Austin. The ‘Sechs Gesänge’, based on poems by Maurice Maeterlinck, were composed originally as songs with piano accompaniment (1910-1913) and later orchestrated in 1924. Like many artists of the period Zemlinsky was attracted to Maeterlinck’s mysterious poetry and philosophical symbolism and in their glittering orchestral garb the composer’s settings represent a striking example of late-romantic voluptuousness. Mindful of this, Christopher Austin has included an accordion and a vibraphone to enrich the palette of his chamber scoring. The vocal soloist is the young mezzo-soprano Katie Bray who, barring some occasional unsteadiness, possesses both the necessary power and beauty of tone to do full justice to these challenging songs. The final item on the disc is Wagner’s popular ‘Siegfried Idyll’ in its original version for a small chamber orchestra of thirteen players. The work’s beauty, charm and intimacy is conveyed in a way that full orchestral accounts can never match, and one could hardly imagine a finer performance than it receives here from the excellent Royal Academy of Music Soloists Ensemble. Like the previous releases in this series the recording was made in St. George’s, Bristol (February 2014). The sound is very clean and detailed, but not lacking in warmth, thanks to the fine acoustic of the venue and the capable engineering of Philip Hobbs. Linn’s fulsome liner notes include texts and translations, though strangely there is no mention of either singer until you reach page 38 of the booklet! Altogether a most enjoyable and fascinating issue.

MOZART: OPERA ARIAS & OVERTURES, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Elizabeth Watts, Christian Baldini/Linn CKD 460 SACD  Rather than issuing a disc made up solely of either Mozart arias or Mozart overtures, Linn have had the happy idea to combine the two for this beautifully performed and recorded programme that not only showcases the remarkable talent and musicianship of soprano Elizabeth Watts but also the stylish orchestral playing of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Each of the six overtures on this SACD, expertly recorded by Philip Hobbs in the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, (3rd to 6th June 2013), is followed by a soprano aria from the respective Mozart opera (or in the case of Don Giovanni both of Zerlina’s arias), something that makes for a more varied and interesting recital than is often the case. The creamy soprano of Elizabeth Watts seems perfectly suited to Susanna’s aria ‘Deh vieni non tardar’ from Act IV of the ‘Marriage of Figaro’, but she is equally adept in the more stylised world of Opera Seria, as is demonstrated by her dramatic and fiery delivery of the recitative preceding Ilia’s aria ‘Padre, germani, addio! from ‘Idomeneo’. Throughout this recital Watts’ firm and beautifully controlled singing meets the challenges posed by the diverse characters portrayed in these six Mozart operas and, thanks to her feeling for the words and immaculate diction, she is most successful in differentiating between each of them; no easy task in programmes of this type. Christian Baldini elicits lively, but never hard driven, performances from the thirty six members of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra whose period influenced style (natural horns, timpani played with hard sticks etc.) is a delight. Elizabeth Watts’ voice is set in perfect perspective with the orchestra ensuring that the characterful winds are always audible. Full texts and translations and are included, and Philip Borg-Wheeler’s liner notes provide useful background information on each of the operas as well as placing the respective arias in context. Wherever you dip into this disc you will find singing of great character, freshness and refinement that marks out all of Elizabeth Watts’ performances, making this a disc to return to often with much pleasure. Highly recommended.

The First Surround Sound Symphonia Domestica reviewed by Graham Williams


  1. STRAUSS: SYMPHONIA DOMESTICA, Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, Marek Janowski/PENTATONE SACD PTC 5186 507 All Straussians will be delighted with the appearance of this handsome SACD release of Richard Strauss’s ‘Symphonia Domestica’ from Marek Janowski and his splendid Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra.  Janowski’s pre-eminence in Wagner may have overshadowed his reputation as a Strauss interpreter of distinction, but those with long memories will remember that he was the conductor of the first ever uncut recording of Strauss’s opera ‘Die Schweigsame Frau’ for EMI and more recently he made a compelling account of the ‘Alpine Symphony’ for PENTATONE. The ‘Symphonia Domestica’ was written in 1903 and is the penultimate of Strauss’s many tone poems. The work is a musical portrait of one day in the life of the Strauss household and is dedicated appropriately to “To my dear wife and son”.  Shortly after the work’s premiere, which took place in New York during his American tour in 1904, the composer faced considerable criticism, not for the music per se, but for his ‘bad taste’ in depicting aspects of his private life that included his sexual relations with his wife, their frequent quarrelling and the musical onomatopoeic yelling of their baby son at bedtime. Such criticism seems rather quaint, if not ridiculous, from today’s standpoint in a world dominated by social media where the most intimate details of celebrities’ lives are frequently open to pernicious scrutiny with ease via the Internet. Though the work has four sections that roughly correspond to the movements of a symphony, including a ‘Scherzo’, ‘Adagio’ and a ‘Finale’, it is probably best viewed as a large-scale symphonic poem in one continuous movement integrated by the constantly recurring themes of its three characters (husband, wife and child) that are presented in the opening section. The instrumentation of the ‘Symphonia Domestica’ is even more extravagant than that of Strauss’s previous tone poem ‘Ein Heldenleben’ – triple woodwind, that unusually includes an oboe d’amore, eight horns, four saxophones a large percussion section, two harps and strings. Strauss uses these gargantuan forces for the most part with surprising delicacy and only in the complex polyphony of the fugal ‘Finale’ does he unleash them with an exhilarating élan that while thrilling can verge on the bombastic. There have been many fine recordings of the piece, including some from conductors who knew the composer personally – Krauss, Szell, Karajan and Reiner – and other more recent recommendable versions to which this new one can certainly be added.  Somewhat to my surprise Marek Janowski directs a fairly spacious and relaxed performance of the work, but one that does allow beautifully shaped and affectionate phrasing from the players of his responsive Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra in the many solos that Strauss gives them throughout the work.  Thanks to meticulously judged balances Janowski manages to achieve the utmost clarity and precision throughout; seemingly undaunted by the challenges presented by the huge orchestra’s complex textures, especially in the Finale. His meticulous control of dynamics is also most impressive, whilst the brilliance of the playing ensures that all the big climaxes are thrillingly delivered. Janowski’s buoyant and supple account of the ‘Symphonia Domestica’, sumptuously recorded by the Polyhymnia team in vivid 5.0 multi-channel DSD, is surely one that all who admire this piece will wish to add to their libraries. What, however, makes this release quite unmissable is the second work on the disc – ‘Die Tageszeiten’ (Times of the Day) for male voice chorus and orchestra – a real Strauss rarity. In 1924 Victor Keldorfer conductor of the Vienna Schubert Society took the opportunity to ask Strauss to write something for the choir, and suggested that texts by Josef Eichendorf might be suitable. Though initially dubious, Strauss eventually agreed and by 1927 the work was completed. The four Eichendorf poems that Strauss sets are ‘Der Morgen’ (morning), ‘Mittagsruh’ (afternoon rest), ‘Der Abend’ (evening) and ‘Die Nacht’ (night). Strauss’s artistry in matching words and music is incomparable, and each of the four settings possess a glowing mellifluousness and melodic richness that bring to mind the late operas ‘Daphne’ and ‘Capriccio’ and especially the ‘Four Last Songs’, where Strauss again turned to Eichendorf for the final song ‘Im Abendrot’. The firm, disciplined yet sensitive singing of the gentlemen of the excellent Berlin Radio Choir could hardly be bettered, and Janowski elicits the most gorgeous and luminous sonorities from his orchestra. The neglect of ‘Die Tageszeiten’ in the concert hall is perplexing and one can only hope that this beautiful recording will help to bring it into greater prominence. PENTATONE’s liner notes do include full texts and translations of the Eichendorf poems. A most enthusiastic recommendation is warranted for this release.

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