Superlative Mendelssohn from Gardiner


MENDELSSOHN: SYMPHONIES 1 & 4, London Symphony Orchestra, Sir John Eliot Gardiner (conductor), LSO0769 (2 discs)  The first two issues in Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s ongoing cycle of the Mendelssohn Symphonies with the London Symphony Orchestra placed them at a stroke into the top echelon of the most recommendable versions of these justifiably venerated and much recorded works. This coupling of the composer’s 1st and 4th Symphonies confirms without doubt that position. Sir John’s pre-eminence in the field of historically informed style is well known from his many recordings with the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique and the English Baroque Soloists. Here he brilliantly imparts his expertise to the responsive players of the LSO with predictably exciting results. As is to be expected the violins are antiphonally divided, the strings use little or no vibrato and the timpani is played with hard sticks. What is not apparent in an audio only release is that in all the concerts of this cycle from which these recordings are taken the violin and viola sections play standing up. Gardiner believes that this gives the players a freedom that translates into a different type of dynamism and energy in the performances. Continue reading

New Chandos, Channel Classics & LSO Live reviewed by Graham Williams


COPLAND: ORCHESTRAL WORKS, VOL. 2: Symphony for Organ and Orchestra* / Symphonic Ode / Short Symphony (Symphony No. 2) /Orchestral Variations John Wilson / BBC Philharmonic / Jonathan Scott (organ)* Chandos SACD CHSA 5171 This rewarding second volume in the Chandos’s survey of Copland Orchestral works from John Wilson and the BBC Philharmonic could hardly be more different from the first that appeared in January this year. Vol.1 featured three of the composer’s most popular ballets – immediately accessible music full of memorable tunes and catchy syncopated rhythms. Though the music here is somewhat more astringent, it does possess an uncompromising muscularity that will be appreciated by admirers of this composer, especially when as well performed and recorded as here. Copland began his imposing 1924 ‘Symphony for Organ and Orchestra’ in France while he was still studying with Nadia Boulanger to whom the work is dedicated and it was this piece that first brought fame to the young composer. Unusually it has three movements like a concerto which is possibly why Copland wrote that the “ organ is treated as an integral part of the orchestra rather than as a solo instrument with orchestral accompaniment”. Nevertheless the work is in most respects a virtuoso concerto, and, as Jonathan Scott the superb organ soloist on this recording notes, the organ writing is deceptively complex from both rhythmic and technical viewpoints. Wilson and the BBC Philharmonic give a scintillating performance of the Symphony with vivid and incisive playing that makes the most of Copland’s brilliant scoring, especially in the propulsive jazzy scherzo and the sweeping grandeur of the finale. Best of all, the recording of the Organ Symphony took place in the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester (16 January 2016) one of Britain’s finest concert halls in terms of its spacious acoustic and tonal clarity. Naturally Jonathan Scott is able to demonstrate to the full the range and capability of the hall’s magnificent pipe organ built by Marcussen & Søn of Aabenraa in Denmark, while organ buffs will enjoy reading the instrument’s full specification printed in the liner notes. The Chandos engineering team have excelled themselves in capturing both the subtle detail and also the awe-inspiring scale of the piece in magnificent 5.0 multi-channel sound. The remaining three works on the disc were recorded in the orchestra’s home studio at MediaCityUK, Salford. In 1957 Copland made an orchestral arrangement of his ‘Piano Variations’ – originally composed in 1930 – in response to a commission from the Louisville Symphony Orchestra. This is one of the composer’s least performed orchestral works, its generally stern demeanour, jagged harmonies and taut construction seemingly not to have found favour with the public at large. Wilson and the BBC Philharmonic though make a very strong case for the piece with their committed and crisply recorded performance. Copland’s Short Symphony (Symphony No.2), dedicated to his friend the composer Carlos Chávez who successfully premiered the work (after no less than ten rehearsals!) in 1934, is cast in three connected movements (fast-slow-fast). It is a playful and vivacious piece with immediate listener appeal that at times seems to anticipate both the later Cowboy ballets and ‘El Salon Mexico’. Listening to the almost effortless assurance with which the brilliant BBC Philharmonic musicians manage the rhythmic intricacies of this score it is hard to believe that it was once thought to be unplayable.
The imposing ‘Symphonic Ode’ (1927-29) that completes this programme was originally scored for a huge orchestra requiring eighteen brass players and an enormous percussion section. Declamatory passages for heavy brass alternate with both jazzy and more reflective sections and the piece eventually builds to a pounding, almost Mahlerian, peroration. Copland revised it in 1955 for the more modest forces heard here but, in spite of his attempt to make it more accessible, this austere work has made little headway in the concert hall. Wilson obviously believes in the piece and his orchestra perform it with their characteristic flare. Once again the Chandos recording is first rate with pin sharp detail and a spacious sound stage typical of the MediaCity studio and the excellent work of engineer Stephen Rinker. Strongly recommended.

BACH: THE ART OF FUGUE, Rachel Podger (violin, director), Brecon Baroque, Channel Classics, SACD B01I4CIFBQ  For her latest release on Channel Classics, Rachel Podger turns to Bach’s late masterpiece ‘The Art of Fugue’. She is joined in this enterprise by the four key members of her expert period ensemble Brecon Baroque: the violinist Johannes Pramsohler (who also plays second viola), Jane Rogers (viola), Allison McGillivray (cello) and Marcin Świątkiewicz (harpsichord). Bach began to assemble the constituent parts of ‘The Art of Fugue’, in the early 1740s, but it remained unfinished at the time of his death in 1750. The work comprises 14 fugues and 4 canons, each based on a single subject, and though he did not specify an order for the pieces, they are usually performed in order of increasing contrapuntal complexity. But as so often with a work left incomplete at the time of a composer’s death many intriguing questions are left unanswered. In this case the main one is that because the work is written in open score and Bach did not indicate any instrumentation then how should it best be realised for performance? For the majority of recorded versions the answer is on keyboard instruments (harpsichord, piano or organ), but the use of other instrumental combinations is equally valid as demonstrated most successfully on this compelling SACD. Rachel Podger and her colleagues are justly celebrated as exceptional artists in the period performance field and they deliver wonderfully expressive performances of each of the eighteen fugues and canons that make up Bach’s astonishing work with a technical finesse that is beyond reproach. The varied combinations of string instruments used here add spice and variety to each of the pieces. There is a rich mellownness to the string sounds and throughout the players ensure that every line is clearly defined so one can follow even the most complex strands with ease. Special praise is due to Marcin Świątkiewicz for the fluent and thoughtful playing of his two allotted solos, the Canon alla Duodecima (tr.13) and Canon alla Decima (tr.15). The final fugue (Contrapunctus14) is performed unfinished, as Bach left it, a poignant reminder of the transience of life. It need hardly be stated that Jared Sacks’s multi-channel DSD recording is, as always, state-of-the-art, capturing the warm acoustic of London’s Church of Saint Jude-on-the- Hill to perfection and giving the instruments an almost holographic vividness set within a realistic sound stage. Scholarly and thought provoking notes by John Butt complete a most desirable issue.

RACHMANINOV: SYMPHONY NO. 1, BALAKIREV: TAMARA, London Symphony Orchestra, Valery Gergiev (conductor), LSO Live LSO 0784  This is the fourth and possibly final disc of the survey of Rachmaninov’s orchestral works from Valery Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra. The main work here is the composer’s 1st Symphony but the disc also includes Balakirev’s symphonic poem ‘Tamara’ making only its second appearance on SACD. Both pieces were recorded on 19th February 2015 at the Barbican. The bad press that Rachmaninov’s 1st Symphony received following its 1897 premiere in Moscow has faded into history, and the work has long been accepted as a bold and imaginative piece worthy of the composer at his finest. The fact that the original score was lost and eventually reconstructed in 1945 from a set of orchestral parts discovered at the conservatory in Saint Petersburg has led some interpreters to ‘spice up’ the score with extra percussion, especially in the central section of first movement and it is worth noting that Gergiev eschews such additions. With the LSO in top form Gergiev’s powerful and committed interpretation impresses from the outset. As usual, he seats the orchestra with double basses on the left and the violins placed antiphonally. The benefits of this are clear to hear not only in his purposeful account of the opening movement but throughout the symphony. The two middle movements are paced with an assurance born of experience. The scherzo is fleet, with delicate contributions from every section of his responsive orchestra, while the flowing tempo he adopts for the slow movement, combined with beautifully nuanced orchestral playing, ensures that any longueurs are avoided. The finale is urgent and builds magnificently to a forceful percussion capped climax whose impressive sonic impact is only slightly constrained by the familiar acoustic limitations of the Barbican Hall. Gergiev’s recording of Rachmaninov’s 3rd Symphony also included his account of Balakirev’s ‘Russia’, but here we are given a much more compelling composition by the same composer. The symphonic poem ‘Tamara’ is a colourful orchestral work based on a ballad by the Russian Romantic poet Mikhail Lermontov and was dedicated to Liszt. Though Balakirev began the piece in 1867 it had a long gestation period and did not receive its first performance until 1883 when it was premiered with the composer conducting. The story tells of a beautiful but evil princess who lives in a tower above the river Terek. Her singing lures travellers to a night of orgiastic passion after which she kills them and throws their bodies into the river. Gergiev gives a fine account of the work, establishing plenty of brooding atmosphere at the start and building to a thrilling climax thanks to the virtuosic playing of the LSO. This disc is a worthy successor to the conductor’s previous Rachmaninov recordings and admirers of those need not hesitate to add this one to their libraries.

Beethoven & Co.: RSK Announce October Priorities

RSK have announced their October priorities. These include: A VOICE FROM HEAVEN – BRITISH CHORAL MASTERPIECES – KING’S CONSORT – VIVAT – VIVAT113: A beautifully themed collection of fourteen of the finest unaccompanied British choral masterpieces of the last 125 years performed by award-winning Choir of The King’s Consort.  RESOUND BEETHOVEN VOL.4 – ‘EROICA’ & SEPTET – MARTIN HASELBOCK – ALPHA – ALPHA474:Recording  the complete Beethoven symphonies on period instruments in the venues where they were first performed.  J.S. BACH: CHRISTMAS ORATORIO – DUNEDIN CONSORT; JOHN BUTT – LINN RECORDS – CKD499: Following the huge success of Magnificat & Christmas Cantata, Dunedin Consort releases its eagerly awaited follow up. Continue reading

Alice Sara Ott in Wonderland


German-Japanese pianist Alice Sara Ott has established herself as one of the most exciting artists of today. As well as being an international classical soloist of the highest calibre, she also boasts bold, creative collaborations with artists and brands beyond the borders of classical music.This autumn she releases a major new album of music by Grieg, recorded live with Esa-Pekka Salonen and Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Wonderland – featuring Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor and the composer’s fantastical, magical Lyric Pieces / Pieces from Peer Gynt – was conceived after soloist and conductor met in 2011, and is released on Deutsche Grammophon, for whom Ott has recorded exclusively since 2008.