More Mahler; 3 Russians

RACHMANINOV: PIANO CONCERTO NO. 1, STRAVINSKY, SHCHEDRIN, Denis Matsuev, Mariinsky, Valery Gergiev/Mariinsky MAR0587 For his latest release Denis Matsuev has had the interesting idea to present three works for piano and orchestra from three different generations of Russian composers on this SACD and, since the performances and recordings are uniformly excellent, this is a most satisfying programme. Matsuev immediately demonstrates his virtuoso credentials in a scorching account of Rachmaninov’s 1st Piano Concerto in its usual 1917 revision. The outer movements leave one breathless with the pianistic fireworks on display, yet in the central ‘Andante’ he is able to bring great romantic warmth and delicacy to the music with his nuanced playing. Since Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra seem to be fired by Matsuev’s enthusiasm, their alert accompaniment is both thrilling and, where appropriate, caressingly sensitive. The conductor’s idiomatic moulding of the romantic theme with which the Concerto opens being a case in point. Stravinsky’s Capriccio that follows is equally impressive. Matsuev really brings out the humour in this witty piece while the powerful contribution of the players of the Mariinsky Orchestra gives Stravinsky’s sparkling orchestration a definite Russian feel. Finally we have the 2nd Piano Concerto of Rodion Shchedrin. This was written in 1966 and is one of the composer’s most inventive pieces. Though it flirts with the music of the European avant- garde of the time by using a twelve-tone theme in the opening movement ‘Dialogues’, it sounds closer to Prokofiev than any serialist composition. This is especially true in the driving toccata-like second movement ‘Improvisations’ that Matsuev dispatches with considerable aplomb. The final movement ‘Contrasts’ is a compositional tour de force during which Shchedrin introduces a jazz combo between passages of tremendous rhythmic energy. The present recording is dedicated to the memory of the ballerina Maya Plisetskaya (1925 -2015) Shchedrin’s wife and dedicatee of this Concerto who passed away shortly after the making of this recording. An alternative version on SACD by Mark-Andre Hamelin is equally recommendable as an interpretation but is nowhere near as well recorded as this one. All three works were recorded live in the Concert Hall of the Mariinsky Theatre by the excellent team of Philipp Nedel (b-sharp), Martin Kistner and Fyodor Naumov. The 5.0 DSD multi-channel is one of the most vivid I have heard from this label and is worthy of Matsuev and Gergiev’s exciting partnership.

MAHLER: SYMPHONY NO.1, Utah Symphony Orchestra , Thierry Fischer/Reference Recordings FR-715 Older collectors will remember with affection the cycle of Mahler symphonies recorded by Maurice Abravanel and the Utah Symphony Orchestra that began in the 1960s. Those pioneering recordings (the first complete Mahler cycle to be recorded in the USA) not only introduced Mahler to many listeners but raised the profile of this fine Salt Lake City based orchestra. Now, from the Reference Recordings Fresh! Label, we have a compelling new account of Mahler’s 1st Symphony recorded in state-of-the-art sound from this same orchestra under their current Music Director, the Swiss conductor Thierry Fischer. This was taken from live performances given in the Maurice Abravanel Hall (September 2014). A glance at the total timing for this SACD (52.55) indicates that Fischer’s performance is towards the swifter end of the spectrum for recordings of this work, suggesting that it is to be the antithesis of lingering indulgence, which indeed proves to be the case. The magical opening pages of the first movement are beautifully controlled with the off-stage trumpets suitably distanced yet absolutely audible. The surprising immediacy of the woodwind entries indicate that the engineers have gone for a closely recorded balance ( possibly to avoid audience noise) but any slight lack of the dreamy atmosphere of Mahler’s ‘Naturlaut’ is more than compensated for by the freshness of the playing and the crisply focused sound. The main body of the movement, with the exposition repeat taken, is beautifully shaped with Fischer conveying the sense of foreboding in the passage from 8.13. The gradual build up to the movement’s final climax is free from any exaggerated slackening of tempo and the final pages are exhilaratingly joyous. The Ländler Scherzo is trenchant and beautifully articulated by the orchestra with the bass line especially clearly defined. Fischer’s sane tempo maintains the music’s momentum while the Trio section demonstrates both his lightness of touch and masterly control of rubato that gives the music a winning insouciance. The contrasting grotesque funeral march that follows shows the superb quality of the individual players in this orchestra, as first muted double bass then bassoon, cello, bass tuba, clarinet and finally plaintive oboe make their entrances over the steady tread of the timpani. The parodic klezmer passages are suitably telling but never over played. The raging opening of Fischer’s finale is a roller-coaster ride with fabulous orchestral playing and demonstration worthy sonics that will be seized upon by both audiophiles and Mahlerites alike. The thunderous percussion and incisive brass of the Utah Symphony are absolutely thrilling, but with the appearance of the lyrical second theme (at 3.22) the Utah strings are given the opportunity to show their mettle. This they do with ravishingly sensitive playing and subtle nuances of dynamics, whilst Fischer’s use of rubato is subtle and free of mannerism. As the material from earlier movements is recalled there is no loss of impetus and the build up to the triumphant final bars is magnificently handled, the coda capped with a room-shaking bass drum. The recording team from Soundmirror, Boston (Dirk Sobotka, John Newton and Mark Donahue) have, as usual, worked their magic and, as I have already indicated, produced a 5.1 multi-channel recording (64fs DSD) of astonishing tonal richness, clarity and presence. On the basis of this recording there is little doubt that Thierry Fischer is a Mahler interpreter of some stature and the projected recording of Mahler’s 8th Symphony in February 2016, scheduled for release in 2017, will be eagerly anticipated.

New Linn, BIS, Channel, etc./Graham Williams

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HAYDN: SYMPHONIES NOS. 31, 70 & 101, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Robin Ticciati Linn Records CKD 500 In every respect Robin Ticciati’s first recording of Haydn Symphonies is a triumphant success. On this new SACD for Linn, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra perform three symphonies that span different decades of Haydn’s long career. Though each one is the same key – D major, they are wonderfully contrasted in both style and instrumentation. Symphony No. 31 known as the ‘ Hornsignal’ opens with some of the most thrilling natural horn sounds imaginable from the four superb players led by virtuoso Alec Frank-Gemmill. Ticciati’s performance is exhilarating yet never rushed, and in each of the four movements the tempi he has chosen seem ideal to allow the music to breathe with unforced naturalness This is especially true in the Symphony’s unusual Finale where, following the statement of a simple theme, Haydn writes seven variations for combinations of various solo instrumentalists and strings. The soloists of the SCO rise fully to the opportunities offered to them with playing of the utmost grace and refinement before the Symphony ends as it began with rousing horn calls. Trumpets and drums give a festive air to Symphony No.70 as befits a work written to mark the rebuilding of the opera house at Esterháza following a disastrous fire in 1779. The opening ‘Vivace’ displays Haydn’s abundant wit and, with its frequent changes of tempo and dynamics, his ability to surprise listeners whilst at the same time providing challenges to the players. The composer’s contrapuntal mastery is demonstrated in the stately ‘Andante’ that follows whilst high spirits return in the minuet and fugal finale. Again Ticciati and his orchestra’s affectionate performance is impeccable, and hopefully will bring new admirers to one of Haydn’s less familiar symphonies. Symphony 101 ‘The Clock’ need no special pleading, being one of the most popular (and most recorded) of the composer’s ‘London Symphonies’. First performed in1794 it represents the composer at the height of his powers and Ticciati’s beautifully paced account effortlessly conveys all of the work’s splendour and undeniable charm thanks to the responsiveness of the excellent SCO. I understand that the next recording in this series will include three further ‘London Symphonies’ – an enticing prospect. These multi-channel recordings were made in the Usher Hall Edinburgh (January and February 2015) by Philip Hobbs and could hardly be bettered in terms of their clarity, spaciousness and warmth. Linn must also be congratulated on providing detailed booklet notes that not only discuss the three Symphonies on this disc but also include two informative essays ‘Haydn and the Enlightenment’ and ‘Haydn and the Horn’ that considerably enhance one’s appreciation of this wonderful composer’s oeuvre. An altogether outstanding release.

RESPIGHI: METAMORPHOSEN, BALLATA DELLE GNOMIDI, BELKIS, São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, John Neschling/B IS BIS-2130 SACD Those seeking a coupling of these three lesser known orchestral works of Respighi need look no further than this superb release from BIS. The Brazilian-born conductor John Neschling has already demonstrated his complete empathy with Respighi’s music in his two previous releases for this label. – the so-called ‘Roman Trilogy’ with the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra and arguably an even finer follow-up of the complete ballet score for ‘La Boutique Fantasque’ and ‘Impressioni brasiliane’ with the orchestra heard on this latest release. ‘Metamorphoseon’ with which Neschling’s program begins comprises a theme and 12 variations (or modes), and is now generally accepted as one of Respighi’s finest works in spite of the composer’s doubts about its quality. Geoffrey Simon’s spectacular 1985 recording on CD for Chandos raised the work’s profile considerably and more recently we have had a sumptuous SACD version from George Hanson and the Wuppertal Symphony Orchestra on MDG. Neschling’s measured account of this imposing work is on the whole most impressive, though perhaps his understandable tendency to dwell on the lyrical beauty of the music does at times rob it of forward momentum, but the responsiveness of the Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège is beyond reproach. Overall timings do, for once, give an accurate reflection of the different approaches of the three conductors; Neschling takes 29’16”, Hanson 26’50” and Simon 25’36”. When sound quality is brought into the equation Neschling and Hanson are equally matched with the BIS recording having marginally greater clarity and MDG greater ambient warmth. Respighi’s lurid symphonic poem Ballata delle gnomidi’ with its nightmare scenario of sexual depravity and brutal murder receives a magnificent performance in which Neschling and the players of his fine Belgian orchestra convey to the listener the sensuousness and violence of this remarkable piece while the composer’s glittering orchestration has been captured by the BIS engineers with startling vividness. The expressive qualities of Neschling’s performances on this disc are displayed to greatest advantage in his ravishing account of the four-movement suite from Respighi’s ballet ‘Belkis, Regina di Saba’ performed here in the order of the published score – two atmospheric slow movements followed by two percussive fast ones. Some conductors (notably Geoffrey Simon and Sascha Goetzel on a recent CD) alternate slow and fast movements to bring greater variety to the suite, but Neschling’s performance lacks nothing in commitment and the BIS sonics are spectacular. It is to be fervently hoped that more Respighi might be forthcoming from this outstanding team, the ‘Sinfonia Drammatica’ being an obvious choice.

RACHMANINOV: SYMPHONY NO. 3, BALAKIREV: RUSSIA,LSO, Valery Gergiev/ LSO Live LSO0779 This SACD is the follow-up to Valery Gergiev’s generally well received recording of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony and marks the continuation of this conductor’s Rachmaninov cycle with the London Symphony Orchestra that is due for completion in the Spring of 2016. As in so much of the Russian repertoire, and especially in this performance of Rachmaninov’s 3rd Symphony, Gergiev clearly demonstrates his empathy with the brooding melancholy and impassioned lyricism evident in one of the composer’s final symphonic outpourings. His account of the first movement (17’45”) is very measured, right from the introductory opening bars for muted cello, horn and clarinets, but it is magnificently delivered by the LSO. For some, Gergiev’s sombre, unhurried approach will seem short in excitement and though this may be true in comparison with say Vladimir Ashkenazy on Decca (CD only), it certainly never lacks power and drama. The second movement (11’53”) that combines an Adagio enclosing a central Scherzo opens with exquisitely played horn and violin solos from Katy Woolley and Roman Simovic respectively and the LSO strings phrase the soulful melody that follows with great eloquence. Gergiev unleashes the agitated central section with considerable energy and elicits notably trenchant playing, especially from the LSO brass and percussion, while the gradual return to the meditative mood of the movement’s opening is impressively handled. The finale (13’48”) follows the same pattern as the opening movement with steady rather than impetuous pacing of the main Allegro. Thanks to the precision of the LSO’s playing (and Gergiev’s antiphonal seating of the violins) the fugal passage from 3’50” emerges with great clarity while Rachmaninov’s glorious cantabile melodies are neither sentimentalised nor short changed; though perhaps the huge ritardando the conductor makes in the closing bars will not be to all tastes. Gergiev’s deeply serious and individual reading of this symphony has much to commend it, even if, amongst the many versions on disc, it is not an obvious first choice. The fill-up is an excellent account of Balakirev’s symphonic poem ‘Russia’ also known as ‘Second Overture on Russian Themes’ making its first appearance in high resolution audio. This is a most attractive work, based on three folk-songs that Balakirev had collected on trips up the River Volga. Gergiev’s performance is vividly characterised and the LSO deliver a sprightly and idiomatic performance of this engaging and colourful piece. Both works were recorded live in concert at the Barbican (11th and 13th November 2014) and though it must be admitted that the unforgiving Barbican acoustic does no favours to the lushness of Rachmaninov’s sound world, Balakirev’s ‘Russia’ emerges unscathed. The DSD recording (5.1 multi-channel and 2.0 stereo) definitely needs to be played at a high volume setting to give of its best.

DVOŘÁK & LALO: CELLO CONCERTOS, Johannes Moser, PKF Prague Philharmonia, Jakub Hrůša/PENTATONE CLASSICS PTC 5186488 For his début release on the PENTATONE label the young German-Canadian cellist Johannes Moser has chosen two contrasting concertos that, though very different in style, share both bountiful melodic invention and firm symphonic structure. On this superbly recorded SACD Moser is accompanied by the PKF Prague Philharmonia (formerly called the Prague Philharmonia) an orchestra founded as recently as 1994 by the distinguished Czech conductor Jiří Bělohlávek. Here the conductor is the charismatic Jakub Hrůša who elicits outstanding playing from his orchestra in both concertos. The long orchestral exposition that opens the Dvorak Concerto immediately confirms one’s admiration for the quality of the PKF Prague Philharmonia musicians. There is a winning sweetness to the characterful woodwind sound, strings are supple and the lovely horn solo elegantly phrased. Moser’s first entry is firm and commanding and as the movement progresses one appreciates the absolute rapport evident between him and Hrůša. The eloquence of Moser’s playing is never in doubt. In the Concerto’s more reflective passages, such as the gentle central ‘Adagio ma non troppo’, it is subtly nuanced while there is plenty of rhythmic buoyancy to be found elsewhere. His technique displays absolute assurance, while the sounds he elicits from his warm-toned 1694 Andrea Guarneri instrument are always beautiful, thanks to the care with which he phrases the melodic lines. Lalo composed his Cello Concerto in D minor (1876/77) in collaboration with the Belgian cellist Adolphe Fischer and, like the Dvorak work, it is very well represented on disc though unaccountably it seems not to appear very often in the Concert Hall. Moser gives an ardent and expressive account of the piece that should win many admirers, and again the alert contribution of the PKF Prague Philharmonia matches the exuberance of Moser’s playing in the lively Spanish atmosphere evoked in the Concerto’s second and third movements. The 5.0 multi-channel DSD recordings were made in January 2015 at the capacious Forum Karlin, Prague where the Polyhymnia team have achieved a rich, detailed yet spacious sound typical of so many excellent PENTATONE releases. In every respect this is an auspicious PENTATONE début for Johannes Moser and the promised future releases from this exciting and gifted artist are eagerly awaited.

STRAVINSKY: LE ROI DES ÉTOILES & LE SACRE DU PRINTEMPS , Michael Tilson Thomas/PENTATONE CLASSICS PTC 5186 225 With this release PENTATONE demonstrate once again how their remarkable re-masterings of these 1970s Deutsche Grammophon quadraphonic tapes to multi-channel SACD can breathe new life into 40 year-old recordings with spectacular results. Michael Tilson Thomas has long been a champion of Stravinsky’s works as his many recordings of them testify and though there are countless fine versions of Stravinsky’s iconic ballet ‘Le Sacre du Printemps’ (The Rite of Spring) in the catalogue, this one shows that when an exceptionally talented and confident 28 year old conductor is put before a superbly drilled world-class orchestra the results can be electrifying. The bassoon solo of the Part I introduction, beautifully played by Sherman Walt, is quite slow, with the long opening note unusually sustained, but it immediately establishes what Stravinsky described as ‘the mystery of the physical world in Spring.’ As the work progresses MTT quickly builds up forward momentum and the ‘Danses des Adolescentes’ and ‘Jeu du Rapt’ are, thanks to the incisive playing of the Boston Symphony, as barbaric as one could wish for. Following a marvellously atmospheric start to Part II the pounding eleven chords that open the ‘Glorification de L’ Élue’ are delivered with tremendous ferocity and MTT skilfully racks up the tension as the ballet proceeds to its eventual frenetic close. The 4.0 channel recording captures the huge tam-tam crashes and earth-shattering drum beats that appear throughout the work with a vividness and power rarely experienced on many more recent recordings, while no praise can be too high for the orchestra’s magnificent brass playing. Though the almost cavernous acoustic of Symphony Hall, Boston certainly presents challenges to both the conductor and the recording team, they are for the most part overcome brilliantly, and thanks to the skills of Thomas Mowrey (producer) and Günter Hermanns (balance engineer) many details emerge with unexpected clarity while the overall impact of the sound is thrilling. The fill-up is the short but remarkable cantata ‘Le Roi des Étoiles” that was composed around the same time as Stravinsky was working on ‘Le Sacre du Printemps’ (1911-12). It is a setting of ‘Zvezdoliki’ (literally ‘Starface’), a text by the Russian symbolist poet Konstantin Balmont and is dedicated to Debussy who greatly admired it. Scored for male chorus and large orchestra, that includes a celesta and two harps, the influence of both Debussy and especially Scriabin in its harmonic language is clear. Surprisingly it had to wait until 1939 to receive its first performance. It is enthusiastically performed by the Men’s Chorus of the New England Conservatory Choir who seem undaunted by its rhythmic and harmonic complexities while the reverberant Boston acoustic adds to the sonic magic of this fascinating piece. It is a pity that PENTATONE could not have re-printed the text of the cantata in the liner notes that accompany this SACD, especially as they were included with the original LP release. Stravinsky, however, was more concerned with the sounds of the words rather than their meaning so perhaps this is no great loss. It should be pointed out that this disc contains only what was on the original LP release in 1972 so a total playing time of 39’41” does seem rather short measure these days for a full-price issue. But quantity does not replace quality, and to have these two performances in such fine high resolution sound is, in my opinion, worth the cost in spite of the disc’s brevity.

GUARDIAN ANGEL: Rachel Podger/ Channel Classics CCS SA 35513 Without doubt this is yet another award worthy production from the incomparable Rachel Podger and the Channel Classics team. Heinrich Biber’s fifteen ‘Rosary Sonatas’, also called the ‘Mystery Sonatas’ as each is connected with one of the Mysteries of the Catholic Church, were composed in or around 1676. They fall into three groups of five – the Joyful Mysteries, The Sorrowful Mysteries and the Glorious Mysteries each group inspired by the events of the life of Jesus and his mother. Biber was a both a gifted composer and a violin virtuoso and these sonatas exemplify his most extensive use of scordatura, a technique in which the strings of the instrument are re-tuned from their usual G-D- A-E tuning in order to produce unusual sonorities and textures. Only in the first of these Sonatas and the concluding Passacaglia is the standard tuning used. It is hardly surprising that Rachel Podger, a superlative exponent of the Baroque violin repertoire, has now turned her attention to these remarkable sonatas, and she and her colleagues do not disappoint anywhere on this supremely rewarding two-disc set. Podger uses her own violin (Pesarinius, Genoa,1739) rather than a set of pre-tuned instruments for all the Sonatas and in the notes she suggests that the “suffering” to the instrument as the re-tuning progressed was, in musical terms, worth the danger to its fabric! The continuo used here is provided by three of today’s most distinguished period performers, David Miller (theorbo and archlute), Marcin Światkiewicz (harpsichord and organ) and Jonathan Manson (cello and viola da gamba) who throughout, in their various combinations, provide ravishing tonal colours appropriate to Podger’s playing. The hauntingly beautiful unaccompanied G minor Passacaglia (‘Guardian Angel’) with which Biber ends the work is taken from Rachel Podger’s earlier release of the same name recorded in the Doopsgezinde Kerk, Haarlem in 2013 . One minor point is that on the new issue the timing of this track is given incorrectly as 10.00 (it is in fact 8.52) which might confuse some listeners into thinking that it is a different performance. Channel’s 5.0 DSD recording made in the Church of St. Jude-on-the-Hill is beyond criticism. The venue provides an ambient warmth and rich glow that enhances the sound of the various instrumental aggregations and the events that they portray, while each and every instrumental line is delineated with absolute clarity and positional accuracy. Splendidly informative notes from Rachel Podger and Mark Seow put the seal on a most desirable release.

PIANIST DENIS KOZHUKHIN SIGNS WITH PENTATONE

PENTATONE has announced the launch of its collaboration with rising star, pianist Denis Kozhukhin. Since winning the prestigious Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels in 2010, Kozhukhin has been steadily developing a very successful international concert career. He has already performed at many of the world’s most prestigious concert halls, both as a recitalist and as a soloist performing with orchestras such as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Philharmonia Orchestra, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and the Mariinksy Orchestra. Continue reading