Superlative Tchaikovsky, Khachaturian from Chandos

TCHAIKOVSKY: PIANO CONCERTO NO. 2/KHACHATURIAN: PIANO CONCERTO, Xiayin Wang (piano), Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Peter Oundjian/CHANDOS SACD CHSA 5167  I was hugely impressed by the Chinese American pianist Xiayin Wang on her debut disc for the Chandos label of three piano concertos by American composers. Now having had a year’s break from her concert schedule to start a family she returns with a stunning SACD of two concertos that though composed by familiar names are not heard that often in the concert hall. This disc confirms her as a pianist who combines virtuosity with consummate sensitivity, qualities required in different degrees for the execution of both of these somewhat neglected concertos. The Tchaikovsky 2nd Piano Concerto is performed in its original version, free of the disfiguring cuts that are thankfully rarely made in performances these days, so the the grandeur and scale of this formidable work is fully retained. From the opening orchestral flourish it is clear that the contribution from Peter Oundjian and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra is going to be worthy of the dazzling pianism on offer, and so it proves. Whether in the tuttis or accompanying the soloist in quiet passages the cultivated playing, especially from the woodwind section, is a major factor in the success of Wang’s account of this monumental work. In the gorgeous slow movement, one of Tchaikovsky’s most imaginative creations, the delicacy of Wang’s playing is beautifully matched by that of Maya Iwabuchi (violin) and Aleksei Kiseliov (cello). Xiayin Wang revels in the high spirits of the finale with playing that abounds with charm and flair. The recording is rich and detailed in the usual Chandos style, but the piano is more naturally balanced and integrated with the orchestra than on Denis Matsuev’s equally fine, though differently coupled, version of this concerto on the Mariinsky label. The coupling here is the Piano Concerto of Aram Khachaturian, his sole venture in this genre, and this too is a winner. The only competition on SACD is from Nareh Arghamanyan on Pentatone, and enjoyable though that performance was, I would venture that this one is even more exciting simply because Xiayin Wang fully embraces the work’s brashness with more uninhibited playing. Arguably another advantage of this Chandos release is the use of a flexatone in the slow movement as specified in the score. On the Pentatone version a musical saw is used which, while effective, did not provide quite the eerie sound that the composer probably had in mind. Again the sound is first-rate and those seeking a coupling of these works need not hesitate.

From Czech Symphonies to American Opera: Graham Williams reviews

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DVORAK: SYMPHONIES 7 & 8, Houston Symphony, Andrés Orozco-Estrada/PENTATONE SACD PTC 5186 578  It is understandable that PENTATONE would wish to mark the signing of their new star maestro Andrés Orozco-Estrada with a release to showcase his considerable musical and interpretive talents, so a coupling of two of Dvorak’s most popular symphonies would therefore seem to be a good choice for this purpose. There is, however, the problem of the existing competition to consider. Currently on SACD alone there are no less than 12 versions of the Symphony No.7 in D minor and an astonishing 21 versions of the Symphony No.8 in G major, not to mention the many recommendable recordings on CD, while the current PENTATONE catalogue already boasts fine accounts of these two symphonies by the late Yakov Kreizberg and the Netherlands PO. Having both symphonies on a single disc lasting 76’34” is certainly a plus point, but it is clear that any newcomer to an over-crowded catalogue needs to offer some illuminating point of view to warrant the attention of collectors. As is the case with all great masterpieces these works invite differing interpretative stances from conductors. In both these symphonies Orozco-Estrada adopts a musical approach that is refreshingly straightforward and direct in manner with generally steady speeds – though he never lets the music drag or become ponderous – and with a warm expressiveness that allows Dvorak’s music to speak for its self. Orozco-Estrada’s middle-of-the-road accounts, that while never matching the urgency or electric intensity of say Manfred Honeck in his recent recording of the 8th Symphony, are unencumbered by mannerisms that can become irritating on repeated listening. Whether this is enough to trump the competition is for each listener to judge for themselves. The Houston Symphony respond to their newly appointed Music director with unfailingly polished playing. Orchestral textures are satisfyingly rich with solid weighty brass, supple woodwind and keen strings all vividly captured in the splendidly rich 5.0 DSD recordings made by the capable team of Mark Donahue, John Newton and Dirk Sobotka. The two symphonies on this SACD were recorded live a year apart (April 2014 for Symphony No. 7 and March 2015 for No. 8) at the Jesse H Jones Hall for the Performing Arts, Houston, Texas. These scrupulously prepared and finally executed accounts of two of Dvorak’s finest symphonies can be confidently recommended to those seeking this particular coupling even in what is clearly a very competitive field.

LUTOSŁAWSKI: CONCERTO FOR ORCHESTRA, BRAHMS G MINOR PIANO QUINTET (ORCH. SCHOENBERG), Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, Miguel Harth-Bedoya/ Harmonia Mundi SACD HMU 807668  The Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra and its Peruvian conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya made a most favourable impression accompanying Vadym Kholodenko in his recent recording of Prokofiev’s 2nd and 5th Piano Concertos and on this new recording they show their mettle in accounts of Lutosławski’s brilliant Concerto for Orchestra and Schoenberg’s orchestration of the Brahms G minor Piano Quintet. Though this is an unusual pair of works to be coupled together on disc the quality of both the performances and the recorded sound on this SACD make it worth serious consideration by collectors seeking a recording of either one or both of these pieces. The Lutosławski work has already received three recordings on SACD, but from the opening bars one is gripped here by the fiery and incisive playing of the FWSO and the steady forward momentum that Harth-Bedoya engenders in the ‘Allegro maestoso’ of the opening ‘Intrada’. The movement’s climax around 4.04 is delivered with tremendous punch, and for once the presence of the ominously ticking celesta that leads to the movement’s quiet conclusion is not subsumed by the rest of the orchestra. In the tricky ‘Capriccio notturno ed Arioso’ the players nimbly articulate the scurrying string passages with notable precision, and in each of the three sections of the finale – ‘Passacaglia, Toccata e Corale’ – demonstrate their virtuosity guided by Harth-Bedoya’s firm and clear sighted direction. The performance of the Brahms/ Schoenberg is equally impressive with generally well chosen tempi; though for the third movement (marked ‘Andante con moto’) a timing of 11.35 may, for some, be a fraction too expansive. But such is the eloquence of the playing it seemed just perfect, and thanks to the up-front recorded sound there is a lovely combination of Brahmsian warmth and clarity of detail throughout. Needless to say Harth-Bedoya and his players really let their hair down in the final ‘Rondo alla zingarese’. Brad Michel’s DSD recording, though closely balanced, has exceptional clarity with plenty of air around the instruments and terrific impact from the percussion section in both works. I did, however, notice the presence of a low frequency hum in the Brahms/Schoenberg work. This was only audible in silences and at the end of movements and did not unduly affect my enjoyment of the performance.In all respects this unusual but satisfying programme deserves a warm recommendation.

SCHUMANN: PIANO CONCERTO/MENDELSSOHN: PIANO CONCERTO NO. 1; MÄRCHEN VON DER SCHÖNEN MELUSINE, OP. 32 (THE FAIR MELUSINA) (1835 VERSION), Ingrid Fliter (piano), Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Antonio Méndez/Linn CKD 555 SACD  Ingrid Fliter’s previous two releases for the Linn label showed her to be a pianist of considerable elegance and refinement. Both featured the works of Chopin, a composer central to her repertoire, but here she performs piano concertos written by two German composers who were contemporaries, friends and colleagues – Schumann and Mendelssohn. Fliter is partnered in both works by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra directed by the young Spanish conductor Antonio Méndez. There are countless recordings on disc of the Schumann Piano Concerto in widely differing interpretive styles to suit all tastes, so how to characterise Ingrid Fliter’s performance of this enduring masterpiece? The brisk delivery of the descending passage in chords at the opening of the ‘Allegro affetuoso’ indicates that this is to be a performance of eagerness and considerable energy and so it proves. In all three movements the pianist seems reluctant to linger (even in the cadenza) and assiduously avoids any risk of over romanticising the music. The benefits of having an orchestra of 37 players are immediately apparent in the clarity of Schumann’s wind writing, while the use of natural trumpets and horns add spice to the orchestral accompaniment.
Even better is the sparkling account of Mendelssohn’s youthful 1st Piano Concerto that elicits a performance of dazzling pianism from Fliter. The zest of her playing in the outer movements almost leaves the listener breathless yet she brings a corresponding calmness to the lovely central ‘Andante’ where the scoring of the main theme for bassoons, horns and low strings sounds especially gorgeous on this recording.Placed between the two concerto performances on this disc is a vivid performance of Mendelssohn’s Overture ‘The Fair Melusina’. This was composed in 1834, but in spite of being a favourite with the composer it remains one of the least familiar of his overtures. The story of a water sprite under a curse and her marriage to a mortal knight has obvious parallels with Dvorak’s opera Rusalka. Mendelssohn, however, does not attempt to depict the events of the story, but rather its oceanic aura. Méndez directs a pellucid and spirited account of this piece full of stylish playing from the SCO. A performance of Mendelssohn’s ‘Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage’ is also available as a free download, though why this was not included on a disc lasting 61 min. is not explained. The clean quality of the recording on this SACD matches the excellence of the performances, thanks not only to the efforts of the recording team (Philip Hobbs and Robert Cammidge) but also to the spacious acoustic of Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall that adds a pleasing ambience to the bright sound. Altogether a lovely disc that will further enhance the reputation of this gifted and charismatic pianist.

FLOYD: WUTHERING HEIGHTS, Soloists, Florentine Opera Company Chorus, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Joseph Mechavich/Reference FR-721 (2 discs) SACD  America’s foremost living opera composer Carlisle Floyd has just celebrated his 90th birthday and, to his credit, is still continuing to compose new operas. Floyd entitles Wuthering Heights, the work under consideration, as ‘a musical drama in a prologue and three Acts with dramatisation and text by the composer after the novel by Emily Brontë’. In the liner notes with these discs he writes that he is of the opinion that this opera is one of his best, both in text and music – a view with which many may concur having heard this compelling world premier recording on the Reference Recordings Fresh! label. Floyd’s first major opera ‘Susannah’ was a huge success when it was staged in New York in September1956 a few months after its world premier in Tallahassee, making him one of the most highly regarded American opera composers of his generation. Following this success Floyd went on to compose Wuthering Heights (1957-58), a commission from the Santa Fe Opera. Initially the work received some scathing criticism resulting in the composer making major revisions to both the music and the libretto and it is this revised version that is recorded on these two SACDs. To set Emily Brönte’s classic tale of ill-fated love and revenge to music is an ambitious project for any composer to undertake, something Bernard Herrmann discovered when after eight years of toil he eventually completed his opera of the same name in 1951. For much of the work Floyd writes in an expressive parlando style that allows the words to be clearly heard even when the voices are competing with large orchestral forces. The dark brooding orchestral score is, even allowing for the tragic nature of the story, mellifluous and often lushly romantic in the style of Puccini and Samuel Barber as, for example, in Edgar’s aria “Then marry me Cathy and make me whole again” (Act 2 Scene 2 ) ardently delivered by tenor Vale Rideout. Floyd’s confident handling of his orchestral palette and his ability to create atmosphere is clear from the start where the doleful horns that open the work immediately capture the bleakness of the North Yorkshire moor setting. It would be hard to imagine a more committed and much better sung performance than that given here by the Florentine Opera Company, one that has the imprimatur of the composer. The casting of the principal roles is very strong and led by the the soprano Georgia Jarman as Cathy and the baritone Kelly Markgraf as Heathcliff. Jarman’s gleaming soprano has the power to ride over the orchestra when required, but she can also sing with great tenderness and her impassioned portrayal of the opera’s tragic heroine is wonderfully expressive throughout. Kelly Markgraf is a commanding and virile sounding Heathcliff whose rhapsodic account of “Was there ever another place in all the world like this!” (Act 1 Scene1) makes him the epitome of the romantic hero. The singers of the supporting roles generally don’t disappoint, with Susanne Mentzer (Nelly) and Heather Buck (Isabella) worthy of special mention. The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, firmly directed by Joseph Mechavich, does full justice to Floyd’s dramatic score with responsive and vibrant playing sumptuously recorded.
The concert recording took place on January 9th and 11th 2015 at the Sharon Lynne Wilson Centre for the Arts, Harris Theatre, Brookfield, Wisconsin with the composer acting as artistic adviser and the Soundmirror recording team have certainly captured the feel of a staged performance. The recording (5.1 multi channel and 2.0 stereo) was made and post-produced in DSD 256 and is both rich and spacious.  The two discs are supplied in a shrink-wrapped double SACD case with the complete libretto simply placed on top of the box. Use of a slip case would have been advantageous as with nowhere to store it once the wrapping is removed, the libretto could easily be mislaid. Another odd point is that the singers do not always sing the exact words given in the printed libretto which sometimes makes it difficult to follow – no explanation is given for this. I would have also welcomed more cue points, (those provided only come between Scenes) and a less awkward side break between the two discs. These minor quibbles of presentation in no way detract from what is, in every respect, a very fine achievement.