Harmonia Mundi, PentaTone, Reference: New SACDs reviewed by Graham Williams


PROKOFIEV: PIANO CONCERTOS 2 & 5, Vadym Kholodenko (piano), Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, Miguel Harth-Bedoya/Harmonia Mundi SACD HMU 807631  The first release in Vadym Kholodenko’s projected cycle of Prokofiev’s 5 Piano Concertos for Harmonia Mundi couples two of the composer’s least performed concertos (2 & 5) in thrilling accounts that make one eager for the completion of this enterprise – (Concertos 1,3 and 4) scheduled for 2016/17. Ukranian born Kholodenko was the winner of the gold medal in the prestigious Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2013 and unsurprisingly has been garnering glowing reviews for the virtuosity of his playing – something that these days is almost taken for granted with concert pianists – but also for the thoughtful musicianship of his performances. The challenges of Prokofiev’s formidable 2nd Piano Concerto display both these qualities to the full. Kholodenko’s account of the opening movement is richly expressive from the start and the monumental cadenza that occupies more than a third of this movement is delivered with fearsome power and weight. The Scherzo is deftly played, with Miguel Harth-Bedoya and the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra providing alert and characterful support both here and in the Intermezzo that follows. The Finale is notable for the lightness of touch Kholodenko brings to the more lyrical passages and the incisive vehemence of his articulation. The 5th Concerto also receives a performance that makes its comparative neglect perplexing. The dominant angularity of Prokofiev’s writing and the wistful lyricism found in the fourth movement spark a performance of muscular strength and mercurial wit from Kholodenko, while Miguel Harth-Bedoya and the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra bring rhythmic acuity and pungency to the composer’s distinctive orchestral pallet. Both works were recorded live at the Bass Performance Hall, Fort Worth, Texas in October 2014 (Concerto 2) and March 2015 (Concerto 5) and conspicuously benefit from being recorded, edited and mastered in DSD by engineer Brad Michel. The perspective is close, presumably to avoid any trace of audience noise, and though the balance certainly favours the piano, comparatively few orchestral details are lost. Overall the sound is remarkably rich and vivid. A most impressive release.

RUSSIAN DANCES: TCHAIKOVSKY: SUITE FROM SWAN LAKE, GLAZUNOV: 2 CONCERT WALTZES, SHOSTAKOVICH: THE GOLDEN AGE, STRAVINSKY: CIRCUS POLKA, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Kazuki Yamada/PENTATONE Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid PTC 518 6557  Russian Dances’ is the third and final release in a PENTATONE series devoted to compositions closely or loosely related to the dance and performed by the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande directed by their principal guest conductor the charismatic Kazuki Yamada. Here the program takes us on a chronological journey from 19th century Russia, courtesy of Tchaikovsky and Glazunov, to the 20th-century represented by Shostakovich and Stravinsky. Kazuki Yamada’s account of the ever popular suite from ‘Swan Lake’ is beautifully paced at danceable tempi and the OSR respond to his direction throughout with playing of polish and refinement – the exquisitely phrased oboe solo at the opening being just one example of many. There are noteworthy contributions in the Act II ‘Scène-Andante’ (track 4) from Notburga Puskas, harp, François Guye, cello and the orchestra’s concert master Bogdan Zvoristeanu . One minor blemish is that the latter’s rather effortful breathing has been captured by the microphones. It is worth mentioning that, unlike some conductors, Yamada uses the eight-movement version of the suite, so both the delicious Danse éspagnole and Danse napolitaine are included, the latter featuring a splendidly agile cornett solo from Olivier Bombrun. The Tchaikovsky ballet suite is followed by genial performances of the two concert waltzes of Alexander Glazunov written in the 1890s as precursors to the composition of his celebrated ballets ‘The Seasons’ and ‘Raymonda’, and though often appearing either singly or together on disc remain rarities in the concert hall. Yamada’s performances have an appealing air of insouciance and a lightness of touch reflected in the immaculate orchestral playing. The four-movement suite from Shostakovich’s ballet of Soviet realism ‘Zolotoy vek’ (The Golden Age) is performed with all the wit and zest essential for the ‘Polka’ and ‘Dance’, but Yamada also finds surprising emotional depth in the second movement ‘Adagio’. Finally we have Stravinsky’s galumphing Circus Polka to end this entertaining programme in rumbustious style. PENTATONE’s superb 5.0-channel DSD recording, expertly engineered by Polyhymnia’s Erdo Groot, has a wonderfully coherent sound stage full of detail and with a glowing ambience that brings the fine acoustic of the Victoria Hall Geneva to vibrant life. While much of the repertoire on offer here is available in countless alternative recordings, Yamada’s persuasive accounts of these evergreen pieces delivered in gloriously opulent sound are irresistible.

DAWN TO DUST: Augusta Read Thomas: EOS (Goddess of the Dawn), a Ballet for Orchestra, Nico Muhly: Control (5 Landscapes for Orchestra), Andrew Norman: Switch*, Colin Currie* (percussion), Utah Symphony, Thierry Fischer/Reference Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid  FR-719  Dawn to Dust’ is the apt title of this new release on the Reference Recordings Fresh! label of works commissioned from three leading American contemporary composers by the Utah Symphony as part of the orchestra’s 75th anniversary celebrations during the 2015/2016 season. All three works here receive their world premier recordings in scrupulously prepared performances conducted by Thierry Fischer, the orchestra’s Music Director. The programme opens with ‘Eos (Goddess of the Dawn)’ by Augusta Read Thomas (b.1964) whose command of a wide ranging orchestral palette is breathtaking. She subtitles the piece ‘A ballet for orchestra’ and confesses in the liner notes that many of her orchestral and chamber compositions were conceived with dance in mind. Lasting around 18 minutes and played without a break, ‘Eos’ has seven movements each of which has a descriptive title. These, and a ballet narrative, are also reproduced in the liner notes and I found them most helpful in following the progress of the work. The music is full of ravishing orchestral sonorities, the subtle use of glittering percussion and writing for winds being immediately striking, whilst the almost Mahlerian string passages in the fourth section ‘Dreams and Memories’ are equally memorable. Textures have a crystalline clarity throughout and the ever changing variety of rhythmic patterns holds the listener’s attention in a composition of great eloquence and lucidity. Nico Muhly (born 1981) has composed works in many genres that include opera, ballet, sacred and pop music and has already amassed a considerable discography. His ‘Control’ (Five Landscapes for Orchestra) deals with Utah’s spectacular natural environment and the manner in which humans interact with it. Muhly acknowledges the influence of the music of Olivier Messiaen and in particular the latter’s ‘Des Canyons aux Étoiles’ a composition also inspired by the Utah landscape. The tiles of the work’s five parts are ‘Landform’– a depiction of large geological structures, ‘Mountain’ – an impressionistic mountain landscape in summer, ‘Beehive’ – industriousness that leads to technological innovation, ‘Petroglyph & Tobacco’ – suggestive of the resilience of Native Americans and finally ‘Red Dust’ – a striking feature of the St. George area of southern Utah. Though the music is harmonically complex, sometimes densely textured and often quite austere, its uncompromising originality and lack of pretension encourages repeated listening. The programme is completed by ‘Switch, a wildly energetic, one might almost say hyperactive, percussion concerto, written by Los Angeles based Andrew Norman (born 1979) and performed here with the utmost virtuosity by Colin Currie. Of the work Norman has written: “Cast as a single movement, Switch takes off where my orchestral cycle Play left off in exploring non-linear narrative structures and video game logic. The percussionist’s many instruments act as triggers, turning other players on and off, making them play forward and backward, and causing them to jump to entirely different musical worlds.” With an uninterrupted span of 28’34” it is the longest piece on the disc and it seems so. The music’s unrelenting drive, interspersed with occasional calm passages, is at first invigorating, but quickly becomes quite exhausting even for the receptive listener. One is left wishing that Colin Currie and the Utah Symphony’s dazzling and definitive account of this theatrical piece had been given a video dimension to clarify the darting interactions between soloist and orchestra and allow the eyes to reduce some of the strain on the ears. I accept, however, that others might not share this view. As is to be expected from this audiophile label, the sound quality on this 5.1 channel SACD (recorded and post produced in 64fs DSD)is awesome. The wide dynamic range of the recording allows both the subtlest string pianissimos and the loudest percussive climaxes to be reproduced with equal fidelity – every instrument clearly identified within a soundstage that possesses convincing width and depth. Though recorded live (February, November and December 2015) at concerts in the Maurice Abravanel Hall, Salt Lake City, the reliable team of Dirk Sobotka. John Newton and Mark Donahue from Soundmirror, Boston, have ensured no audience noise is audible and applause has also been excised. Exemplary notes on these compositions written by their respective composers complete this stimulating release.

MASON BATES: ORCHESTRAL WORKS, San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas/San Francisco Symphony/SFS SACD 0065  The name of composer Mason Bates, though possibly familiar to those living in the United States, is unlikely to be as well known to those in other parts of the world, but this is something that may well change with the release of this stunning SACD of his music from Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony. Mason Bates is a 39 year old classically trained (at Juilliard and Berkeley) composer with a considerable body of work in many genres including concertos, large scale orchestral works and shorter ones that he calls ‘openers’. Bates is just completing his duties as one of two composers-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra who have already released a CD recording of ‘Alternative Energy’, one of the three works on this disc, though unlike the one heard here it is not released in high resolution sound. He now begins a three-year residency at the Kennedy Center as their first composer-in-residence and is currently writing an opera about the late inventor and IT genius Steve Jobs. What, however, distinguishes him from many other contemporary composers is his parallel career as a DJ in dance clubs both in Europe and the United States. This has led him to extend the range and possibilities of the modern symphony orchestra through a fusion with electronic dance music. The predictably exciting results can be heard on this SACD. It is worth mentioning at this point that Bates’s music is tuneful, rhythmically inventive and totally accessible which is one reason why its reception with audiences has been overwhelmingly positive. It is up to others to speculate on what will be the shelf-life of these populist works and the composer’s future direction, but his talent is undeniable. Bates describes the three pieces on this disc as ‘symphonies’ but they are really only symphonic if the earliest definition of the word as “sounding together” is applied. Each is really a suite whose movements are linked thematically by a clear extra-musical narrative. All three works require large orchestral forces plus electronica of different types. ‘The B-Sides’ and ‘Liquid Interface’ were recorded in January 8-18, 2014 whilst ‘Alternative Energy’ was recorded later the same year (September 10-13).’The B-Sides’ was commissioned and premiered by the SF Symphony in 2009 and is dedicated to Michael Tilson Thomas. It is a response to the conductor’s suggestion that the composer should write a collection of five pieces focusing on texture and sonority in the manner of Schoenberg’s ‘Five Pieces for Orchestra’. The musical imagery here is wide ranging; travelling from the ravishingly impressionistic textures heard at the start of ‘Broom of the System’ through ‘Gemini in the Solar Wind’ (that incorporates clips of actual conversations between NASA and the astronaut Ed White) and ending with the pulsating low frequency energy of ‘Warehouse Medicine’ that re-imagines the Detroit dance scene parties of the 1990s. In ‘Liquid Interface’ (2007) the music seems more focussed. Its subject is the various manifestations and states of water. ‘Glaciers Calving’ includes the sounds of fracturing glaciers in Antarctica while the dazzling ‘Scherzo Liquido’ bears witness to the alertness and virtuosity of the SFS musicians throughout these performances. The work’s final section is a tranquil evocation of spring at Wannsee, the lake on the outskirts of Berlin where Mason Bates once lived. ‘Alternative Energy’ (2011) is the most recent work on this disc and the most ambitious. In addition to large orchestral forces it requires a laptop, 6 speakers placed around the orchestra, and some onstage monitors. Bates calls it an “energy symphony”, and it takes us on a journey from Henry Ford’s Farm in 1896, depicted by metallic mechanical sounds and a folksy violin solo, to ‘Chicago, 2012’ a movement that makes spectacular use of the SACD’s surround sound capability and includes actual recordings from the FermiLab particle accelerator. Another leap forward in time and we reach ‘Xinjiang Province 2112’ a futuristic depiction of an industrial complex – its Chinese location indicated by some pentatonic melodic phrases – before the music erupts into a driving techno beat of unrelenting energy.  The final movement ‘Reykjavik, 2222’ suggests a strange post-apocalyptic landscape punctuated by electronic bird cries. Towards the end the violin solo from the start of the work re-appears to possibly suggest a return to a simpler way of life. Needless to say the orchestra under the direction of MTT play with tremendous concentration and enthusiasm in all three works. As with all SFS Media releases the production values could not be higher. Producer Jack Vad and his engineering team have created a magnificently vivid recording (PCM 192kHz/24-bit) in the Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco that, especially when heard in multi-channel sound, does full justice to Bates’s kaleidoscopic orchestral palette. The dynamic range is huge and everything from the soft whispers of string chords to room-shaking electronic pulses is reproduced with astonishing clarity in a realistic concert hall acoustic. Though these are live recordings there is no trace of audience noise and, unlike some other SFS Media issues, applause has been excised.
In short we have here 71 minutes of exuberant music from the fertile imagination of a talented composer, performed with style and flair and recorded in state-of-the-art sound – what’s not to like?

VIVALDI: BASOON CONCERTOS, Academy of St Martin in the Fields, Gustavo Núñez/PENTATONE SACD PTC 5186539  With the exception of the violin, Vivaldi composed more concertos for the bassoon than any other instrument – a total of 39 if two incomplete works are included – yet little is known about for whom they were written. But it is generally believed that Vivaldi composed these concertos in the1720s and 30s and that the pupils of the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice, where he was the ‘maestro dei concerti’, were probably the recipients since their reputation as accomplished instrumentalists is well documented. On this impeccably recorded release from PENTATONE six of these concertos are performed by Gustavo Núñez who since 1995 has been principal bassoonist of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and is widely regarded as one of the leading bassoonists of his generation. Núñez performs these works on a modern instrument whose attractive tone enhances the stunning virtuosity displayed by him throughout this disc. The technical demands of these concertos, that include wide ranging leaps, arpeggios and fast scales, are met with ease by this consummate performer, while the flawless cantabile that Núñez displays in the expressive slow movements is especially appealing. Such is the variety and inventiveness of these compositions that one can happily listen to all six of Núñez’s superlative performances of them in one session without any trace of boredom ever creeping in. Núñez is partnered by the twenty one strong Academy of St. Martin in the Fields directed by Tomo Keller. Their crisp and alert accompaniment is always attentive to the soloist, and though these works are performed on modern instruments they do include elements of period style such as minimum vibrato and tasteful contributions from the four continuo players (Stephen Orton – cello, Lynda Houghton – double bass, Lynda Sayce – Theorbo and John Constable – harpsichord). The exuberance of the ASMF playing in all six concertos is bracing – the opening ritornello of the Bassoon Concerto in A Minor RV 497 (tr.14) being a prime example of the unanimity and fire of their attack. The recordings were made in April 2015 in St. John’s Smith Square, London – a venue long renowned for its fine acoustics. The Polyhymnia team’s microphones have captured just the right amount of the church’s ambience in their beautifully balanced 5.0 DSD multichannel recording to allow clarity of the instrumental lines while at the same time retaining the vividness and warmth of the overall sound picture. In all respects Vivaldi’s genius is well served by these spirited performances presented in immaculately recorded sound. Highly recommended.

Epic Janowski Ring from PENTATONE

As a prelude to Marek Janowski’s debut as principal conductor at the Bayreuth Festival 2016, PENTATONE is presenting in April the first ever multichannel surround sound
recording of the Ring Cycle in a luxurious collector’s box set  containing 13 SACDs and more than 250 pages rich with content, including liner notes, biographies and full librettos in English and German.