Reich from LSO Live

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REICH: SEXTET; CLAPPING MUSIC; MUSIC FOR PIECES OF WOOD, LSO Percussion Ensemble, Neil Percy/LSO Live SACD LSO5073  This timely release of three works by one of the pioneers of minimalism Steve Reich appears a few months before the composer celebrates his 80th birthday on 3rd October 2016. The three performances recorded here were given by members of the London Symphony Orchestra Percussion Ensemble led by Neil Percy – a consummate virtuoso – who for almost 20 years has been the LSO’s Principal Percussionist. ‘Clapping Music’ composed in 1972 is exactly what it says on the tin. Reich conceived the piece from a desire to compose music “that would need no instrument beyond the human body”. Beginning with a single rhythmic cell of 12 beats modelled on traditional African bell rhythms it uses Reich’s familiar phasing technique to explore the basic rhythmic pattern with mesmerising effect. Neil Percy and his LSO Co-Principal Sam Walton, deliver a faultless account of what must surely be a most challenging piece for performers. A year later in 1973 Reich composed his ‘Music for Pieces of Wood’ in which five performers play five sets of wood blocks (claves) tuned A, B, C#, D# and the D# an octave above. Though, unlike ‘Clapping Music’, the element of pitch is present, it is the interplay of the complex rhythmic patterns that captivates the listener. Neil Percy and Sam Walton are joined by Simon Crawford-Phillips, David Jackson and Antoine Bedewi to yield a performance of amazing precision and control of dynamics. The final and longest piece on this SACD is the ‘Sextet’ of 1985 for which Philip Moore joins the ensemble. While the first two works represent Reich in what might be considered to be his purest style, the ‘Sextet’ brings a wider range of instrumental sonorities into play in what is a more ambitious and colourful composition. Continue reading

Tempting New Discs from Dutton, Challenge, BIS & Co.

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SULLIVAN: INCIDENTAL MUSIC TO MACBETH & THE TEMPEST, etc., Mary Bevan, FFlur Wyn, sopranos, Simon Callow, speaker, BBC Singers, BBC Concert Orchestra, John Andrews/Dutton Epoch SACD 2CDLXX7331  The highly enterprising Dutton label has long been putting lovers of English music into its debt with a series of acclaimed recordings of neglected music both by little-known composers and giants of the field (the company’s recent disc of Vaughan Williams’ Fat Knight – a piece realised by the conductor Martyn Yates — was an absolute delight, and provided listeners with what was virtually a new piece by VW). This latest disc of incidental music by Arthur Sullivan serves the function of reminding listeners (if it were necessary) that there is far more to Sullivan the witty delights of the Savoy operas. We have heard some of this music before, but never in this impeccably rendered form. The composer’s level of invention here is non-pareil, even if this incidental music to Shakespeare is unlikely to be heard in any contemporary performances of The Bard. The vocal contributions by the sopranos Mary Bevan and FFlur Wyn are subtle and winning, but the real added value of the disc is provided by Simon Callow. His assumption of a speaking role is a reminder of the fact that actor has one of the most aesthetic speaking voices in the UK, and even those who balk at oration on classical discs will find themselves won over. With every new issue of this ilk, one wonders how long Dutton can continue its welcome exhumation process — we can only hope: indefinitely. And there is a final persuasive reason for purchasing this disc. The SACD recording is quite admirable in its fidelity to the sound canvas, with every detail of the piquant orchestration rendered with total fidelity.

OVERTURES BY GLUCK, MOZART, BEETHOVEN, CHERUBINI, WEBER AND MENDELSSOHN, Bamberg Symphoniker, Karl-Heiz Steffens/Tudor 7195 SACD  How commercial is this collection? Most dedicated classical music enthusiasts will have at least a few of these pieces – even in the SACD medium – but this is a particularly useful disc in collecting a programme that makes for very satisfying unified experience. From the Gluck overture to Iphigenie in Aulis (which opens the programme) to Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream overture, which brings it to a close, the level of musicianship is impeccable – and it goes without saying that (as with every surround sound disc from Tudor), the recording blossoms in a persuasive simulacra of a concert hall ambience.

CHALLENGE CLASSICS SACDS: RICHARD STRAUSS: ARABELLA/Albrecht (CC 72686); BRAHMS: SERENADE NO.1, HAYDN VARIATIONS/De Vriend (CC 72692); BEETHOVEN: PIANO CONCERTOS 1 & 2/Minaar, de Vriend (CC72712); PROKOFIEV: SYMPHONIES 6 & 7/Gaffigan (CC 7214)  The Challenge Classics label has long been a supporter of the surround sound medium, issuing a series of discs which married recordings of great warmth and finesse to performances that merited such impeccable rendering. And it might be argued that the label is currently experiencing something of a Golden Age, as the admirably high quality of the discs listed above suggest. Strauss’s Arabella is given a reading of affection and lyricism that is perfectly suited to this late flowering of the composer’s genius. Jacquelyn Wagner is both mellifluous and moving in the title role. There are perhaps two caveats: the live recording picks up quite a bit of stage noise and (in the final analysis) this is not quite a reading to challenge such classic recordings of the past as that featuring Lisa Della Casa. But as the first performance of the opera in the SACD medium, it is undoubtedly a worthy contender, and the packaging (with a libretto folded into a booklet format with the disc) is the perfect solution to this problem. James Gaffigan’s reading of two of Prokofiev’s later symphonies has an attention to detail that is combined with performances, of great panache. It’s an issue which will appeal to any committed Prokofievian, and it’s interesting to note that the composer’s symphonies, once relatively sparse in their representation on disc, are becoming more and more common, even in the surround sound medium. The two Beethoven and Brahms discs conducted by Jan Willem de Vriend both show meticulous attention to the scores and a welcome refusal to add any conductorly flourishes to enhance the music; de Vriend allows the composers to be their own advocates without any gildingof the lily. The results are impressive. It’s interesting to note that the disc (which couples the first Orchestral Serenade with the Variations on a Theme by Haydn) is another entry on SACD of the former piece, while the Second Serenade has yet to make an appearance (Robin Ticciati’s admirable reading of the First Serenade similarly eschews the second. Isn’t it about time for a matching reading of the second Sereande, either from De Vriend or Ticciati?) But – back to the business at hand. One can only hope that the Challenge Classics label continues to share this commitment to surround sound – performances as good as those on these discs demand the best possible sound resolution.

DEBUSSY & TAKEMITSU FOR STRINGS, Scottish Ensemble Linn CKD 512  I don’t know about you (there are those who are distinctly sniffy about such things), but I am always on the lookout for new orchestrations of pieces written for other combinations, usually written originally for a small number of strings. Much depends, of course, on the skill of the orchestrator. The pieces arranged by Jonathan Morton (who conducts the Scottish ensemble) are done with such musicality and sensitivity here that only the most unbending of listeners will be able to resist their charm. The Debussy String Quartet in G minor may have more rigour and intensity in its original setting, but the sheer bloom of the new clothing it is given here by Morton provides a fresh dimension. I’m not greatly taken with the Takemitsu pieces, but there will be those who are more on the composer’s wavelength. The Debussy items alone, however, are worth the price of admission. The Scottish Ensemble’s reputation for excellent string arrangements (established with important commissions from the late Rudolph Barshai) continues here. The variety of string techniques and the wide palette of instrumental colours Debussy employed are all enhanced by the larger string ensemble, particularly in the sumptuously beautiful slow movement. In addition, the attractively lyrical Girl with the Flaxen Hair has been orchestrated for string ensemble and two harps by Colin Matthews.

SCRIABIN: SYMPHONIES 1 & 2, Soloists, London Symphony Orchestra, Valery Gergiev/ LSO live 0770 SACD  Not everyone will warm to these performances of lesser-known Scriabin symphonies (and the first has a more persuasive reading on the PentaTone label), but there is no denying Valery Gergiev’s commitment to the music, and if you have the matching coupling of Scriabin symphonies 3 and 4, you need not hesitate.

RESPIGHI: SINFONIA DRAMMATICA; BELFAGOR, OUVERTURE PER ORCHESTRA, Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège, John Neschling/ BIS 2210 SACD  To some degree, Respighi’s imposing Sinfonia Drammatica has been a poor relation among the composer’s major works, no doubt because it does not quite possess the typically Respighian sound, with that striking alternation of raw power and rich orchestration which is the hallmark of the composer’s work; this is a piece which is more in the Straussian idiom. But with a little work on the listener’s part, it can be immensely rewarding in the right hands. The latter condition is very much the case here with John Neschling once again demonstrating his sympathy for this composer. After recording the Roman trilogy with the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra, Neschling has continued to explore Ottorino Respighi’s lavish orchestral scores with the Belgian Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège. On the team’s third disc the turn has come for Respighi’s Sinfonia drammatica – a score of epic proportions (over 58 minutes in the present performance) for a correspondingly large-scale orchestra. Both these factors may explain in part why it is rarely performed and recorded, but the work also has a dark-hued, intense character which will surprise those only familiar with Respighi’s more extrovert scores. Closing the disc is the better-known Belfagor Overture, a work from 1924 in which Respighi rescued material from an opera.

BUTTERWORTH ORCHESTRAL & VOCAL WORKS (arr. Russman), Soloists, Kriss Russman/BIS 2195 SACD  Don’t be put off by the rather old-fashioned sleeve illustration with which BIS have adorned this unusual release with (something Arcadian would have been far more apropos); this is a very pleasing one-disc compilation of the important pieces by the composer with the added virtue of some orchestrated songs which sound splendid in their richer guise. When George Butterworth left England to fight in the First World War, he had already begun to compose the ‘Orchestral Fantasia’. It is unknown whether he ever finished the work and, due to the composer never returning home, any complete score was lost. Composer and conductor Kriss Russman has taken up where the manuscript breaks off, developing Butterworth’s ideas and completing the work. Butterworth’s ‘Orchestral Works’ on the BIS label also feature world première recordings of newly-orchestrated versions of celebrated works, such as Songs from A Shropshire Lad and Suite for String Quartette

DOHNÁNYI: ORCHESTRAL WORKS: Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 5* / Symphony No. 1, Op. 9 / Suite from The Veil of Pierrette, Op. 18 / Suite, Op. 19 / Variations on a Nursery Theme, Op. 25*/ Ruralia hungarica, Op. 32b / Symphonic Minutes, Op. 36 / Symphony No. 2, Op. 40. Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 42*/ Violin Concerto No. 2, Op. 43†/ Harp Concertino, Op. 45‡ / American Rhapsody, Op. 47, James Ehnes (violin)† / Howard Shelley (piano)* / Clifford Lantaff (harp)‡. BBC Philharmonic / Matthias Bamert CHAN 10906(5)  Classical music enthusiasts are known to take the occasional composer for granted, and do not stray beyond the one or two popular works by musicians less celebrated than the Rachmaninovs of this world. And it is a mistake, in the case of composers such as Ernst von Dohnányi, principally known for his Nursery Variations. This compact and comprehensive box set shows there is much more to him than what people think they know. Chandos’ series of recordings of his orchestral works, performed by the BBC Philharmonic under Matthias Bamert, with an impressive roster of soloists, significantly increased his public profile, and is now regarded as benchmarks for the repertoire.

LEHÀR: GIUDITTA, CHRISTIANE LIBOR, LAURA SCHERWITZL, NIKOLAI SCHUKOFF, RALF SIMON, CHOR des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Münchner Rundfunkorchester, Ulf Schirmer CPO777 749-2  A certain snobbishness has worked against the reputation of Franz Lehàr, but despite the unchallenging nature of his operetta libretti, his music is full of charm and melody (and it will come as no surprise to listeners that the Broadway composer Richard Rogers was a great admirer — both men are melodists to their fingertips. Lehar’s best work is in his operettas The Merry Widow and Land of Smiles, but many would make a case for Giuditta. Lehàr’s operetta is ably performed by Christiane Libor, Laura Scherwitzl, Nikolai Schukoff, Ralf Simon, the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks and the Münchner Rundfunkorchester under the baton Ulf Schirmer. A wealth of beautiful melodies preside, above all Octavio’s aria ‘Freunde, das Leben ist lebenswert’ and the title heroine’s aria ‘Meine Lippen, sie küssen so heiß.

KHACHATURIAN, RAUTAVAARA FLUTE CONCERTOS, Sharon Bezaly, flute, Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra, Enrique Diemacke/BIS-1849 SACD  When the flautist Jean-Pierre Rampal asked the composer Khachaturian for a new concerto, the latter suggested that he simply transcribe the composer’s violin concerto. And as an exercise in transcription, the piece is a delight, adding another concerto to the limited repertoire of the instrument. For this writer, the piece is far preferable in its original violin incarnation, but admirers of the flute will be pleased, particularly given that the accompanying piece, a concerto by Rautavaara is a relatively beguiling modern work. Both works are played with great technique by Sharon Bezaly.

SCUMANN: COMPLTE SYMPHONIC WORKS VOL. V1, WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln, Heiz Holliger/Audite 97705  This has been a truly exemplary series from Audite, enshrining Schumann’s oeuvre in performances of great authority. The ace in the hole is here is the little-known ‘Zwickau’ Symphony. The listener might almost – almost! — be convinced by this performance that it belongs in the Schumann canon.

SAINT-SAËNS: SYMPHONY NO.3, ‘ORGAN’, ETC., Kansas City Symphony, Michael Stern/Reference Recordings RR-135 SACD  Prepare for a striking experience. Many recordings of Saint-Saens’s Third Symphony have done considerable justice to the diaphragm-shaking organ chords in the final movement, but few have had the sheer impact of this recording by Michael Stern and the Kansas City Symphony (previously reviewed on Classical CD Choice by Graham Williams), one of the Reference Recordings discs originally issued as a CD, but now repurposed in glorious SACD sound (the company’s back catalogue, in fact, is crammed with stereo-only discs that one would love to see given this surround sound sprucing up). Stern and his Kansas City forces find the poetry in Saint-Saëns’ magnificent score as well as its majesty, and deliver a particularly limpid Poco Adagio, finessing all the delicate orchestration that is to be found in the movement. The generous fill-ups are the Introduction and Rondo Capriccio and the little heard La Muse et la Poète. Perhaps a warning note should be sounded: this is a disc with such a wide dynamic range that it will sound better in larger living rooms than more compact ones; as the acoustic is at times notably resonant, the bass response is more suited to top-of-the range-equipment in a room that gives the sound picture the space it demands. If your equipment (and living room) is up to this job, you are in for a remarkable listen.