Honeck’s Beethoven & Strauss

GRAHAM WILLIAMS WRITES:

BEETHOVEN: SYMPHONY NO.3, R. STRAUSS: HORN CONCERTO NO. 1, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Manfred Honeck/Reference Recordings SACD FR-728  Manfred Honeck’s tenure at the helm of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra that began in 2008 has arguably transformed this orchestra from an already first class one into a great one. It is no surprise therefore that the orchestra has extended his contract until 2020. Thanks to the Reference Recordings Fresh! series this transformation can readily be experienced by listeners world wide, as some of their choicest performances have been, and continue to be, captured in superlative multi-channel sound and issued both on SACD and as high resolution downloads. This latest release, the eighth in the series, pairs Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 Op 55 (“Eroica”) with the Horn Concerto No.1 of Richard Strauss. At a first glance this might appear an odd combination, but coupling a concerto written for the most heroic instrument of the orchestra with Beethoven’s “heroic” symphony – both works incidentally sharing the key of E flat major – certainly makes sense. Continue reading

Holst from Chandos, Shostakovich from LSO Live

SHOSTAKOVICH SYMPHONY NO. 8, London Symphony Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda/LSO Live LSO 0822 SACD  Few orchestras have the measure of one of Shostakovich’s most cogent symphonic utterances, the imposing Eighth Symphony, to the degree that the London Symphony orchestra demonstrably does – and under the exemplary direction of Gianandrea Noseda, they have produced (in surround sound of the greatest impact) a highly competitive reading of striking weight and power.

HOLST: ORCHESTRAL WORKS VOL. 4, BBC Philharmonic, Sir Andrew Davis/Chandos SACD CHSA 5192 Remarkably translucent SACD sound distinguishes this latest addition to a highly collectable Holst series. The progress of this very welcome project has been attenuated (to say the least), but patient admirers of the composer have been rewarded by a sympathetic set of readings of Holst’s music, both familiar and less familiar. This latest volume largely concentrates on the latter, and while even the most ardent Holst admirer would not make any great claims for the rather uncharacteristic Cotswolds Symphony, it’s still an acquisition that will please many – as will the orchestration for strings of the wind band piece A Moorside Suite. The real gem here, of course, is Indra, an exotic and colourful piece that has all the distinctive fingerprints of the composer. Sir Andrew Davis’s exploration of Holst’s orchestral works with the BBC Philharmonic is the continuation of a series initiated almost ten years ago by the late Richard Hickox. This latest collection of orchestral works by Holst is something of an overview of his career, ranging from such early works as A Winder Idyll (composed in 1897 when he was still studying at the Royal College of Music) to the Scherzo of a symphony on which he was working towards the end of his life. None of the music recorded here was published in his lifetime, but all of it is worthy of the attention of Holstians.

BRAHMS: SYMPHONY NO. 3, ALTO RHAPSODY, HUNGARIAN DANCES, SCHUBERT SONGS, Swedish Chamber Orchestra, Thomas Dausgaard/BIS 2319 SACD  Perhaps the most appealing aspect of this disc is its unusual collection of ancillary pieces, all of which will make the purchase of the disc de rigeuer for the Brahmsian. As for the performance of the Third Symphony, it is perfectly efficient but perhaps lacks the distinction that Thomas Dausgaard and his forces previously bought to their cycles of the symphonies of Schubert and Schumann. The 40-odd members of the Swedish Chamber Orchestra and their conductor Dausgaard are well on their way to completing their series of Brahms’s orchestral works. This disc opens with the Symphony No. 3, followed by the rare orchestrations of six Schubert songs, with Anna Larsson and Johan Reuter as vocal soloists. As on previous discs, Dausgaard has included a set of the much-loved Hungarian Dances in his own orchestrations. The disc closes with one of Brahms’s most personal works, the Alto Rhapsody that he composed after having learned that Robert Schumann’s daughter Julie, with whom he was secretly in love, had become engaged to another man.

LARSSON: SYMPHONIC WORKS, VOL. 3, Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra; Andrew Manze/CPO 777673-2 SACD   If you are the kind of listener who is seeking out something more adventurous than the standard repertoire, it is perhaps time for you to make the acquaintance of the music of Lars-Erik Larsson. And there is no better place to start than with this highly engaging reading of his Third Symphony, music of the modern age which nevertheless takes of the pleasures of tonality and approachability. CPO’s series of recordings of Larsson’s symphonic works is now finally complete. The composer’s Third symphony (a four-movement work) is a masterpiece, and it is difficult to understand why Larsson withdrew this symphony shortly after its premiere and retained only the finale, now with a new, lengthier slow introduction and the title Concerto Overture No. 3. This finale is in fact a movement of especially captivating elegance, a unique humorous quality, and outstanding craftsmanship, but the symphony has to be experienced in toto – as here.

BEETHOVEN: SYMPHONY NO.3, R. STRAUSS: HORN CONCERTO NO. 1, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Manfred Honeck/Reference Recordings SACD FR-728  The more genned-up classical listener will have added to their mental lists a particularly unbeatable combination: the dynamic conductor Manfred Honeck (with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra) and the American classical label Reference Recordings, whose mastery of audiophile values now has few rivals in the field. In a continuing series of impressive recordings, the conductor, orchestra and the label have managed to bring a fresh perspective to some familiar music — and they have presented themselves a particular challenge on this enterprising disc. But you might ask why I’ve utilised the adjective ‘enterprising’ when this is yet another recording in the endless stream of takes on Beethoven’s third Symphony — but a fresh reading of Strauss’s first Horn Concerto sets both works in a new context and forces the listener to listen afresh. When so many recordings of the mighty Eroica have done considerable justice to Beethoven’s masterpiece, something special is needed for each new recording, and that is precisely what Honeck and his forces offer in this incisive and exhilarating reading. The disc was recorded in Heinz Hall, home of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and mastered in wide-ranging audiophile sound by the team at Soundmirror. (See also Graham Williams’ review opposite)

BERLIOZ: REQUIEM/GRANDE MESSE DES MORTS, Bergen Philharmonic, Soloists, Edward Gardner/Chandos SACD CHSA 5219  When Roger Norrington’s remarkable surround sound recording of the Berlioz Requiem appeared, utilising all available channels (and thus replicating the composer’s stated intention of putting the audience at the centre of the music), it seemed that a definitive reading – and recording of immense range – had assumed default position as a listener’s choice. But now that Norrington set has an imposing rival which similarly utilises all the resources of multichannel recording to great dramatic effect, and the choice between the two becomes difficult. If Norrington’s choir and soloists have slightly more pointed articulacy (at least as accorded to them by the engineers), there is no denying the sheer impact of the forces made available to Edward Gardner who has been proving through his series for Chandos his immense flexibility and versatility as a musician. The new recording thoroughly utilises the spatial possibilities of Grieghallen in Bergen. As has been pointed out, the music is not that of an orthodox believer but of a visionary (as with the similarly sceptical Vaughan Williams and Brahms).

CHOPIN: NOCTURNES, Ingrid Fliter/Linn CKD 565   These exquisite masterpieces for the piano could hardly be said to have been neglected over the years, and with so many impressive performances on disc, Ingrid Fliter (as she is no doubt aware) is entering a crowded field. Those who know her earlier Chopin performances will not be surprised to learn of the poetry and musicality of these recordings, sadly only in CD stereo sound rather than Linn’s superb earlier use of the SACD medium. Some extraneous vocal noises by the pianist are not distracting.

SCHREKER: THE BIRTHDAY OF THE INFANTA – SUITE, PRELUDE TO A DRAMA, ROMANTIC SUITE, Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, JoAnn Falletta/Naxos  if your personal yardstick for full-blooded late romantic music is a tone poems by Richard Strauss, but you have played to exhaustion your discs of Also Sprach Zarathustra and Don Juan, then there is a lesser-known composer who may slake that late romantic thirst. Franz Schreker was a prominent figure in early 20th-century Austro-German music, his reputation as an opera composer rivalling that of Richard Strauss. The Prelude to a Drama is the concert overture of Schreker’s acclaimed opera Die Gezeichneten, a lurid drama involving murder and madness. Conceived as a theatrical pantomime, The Birthday of the Infanta adapts Oscar Wilde’s tragic tale of an ugly dwarf who dies of a broken heart. Perfomances her do full justice to the music, while not quite matching the idiomatic readings of the concurrent Chandos Schreker series.

Classical CD Choice Disc of the Month  MOZART: SYMPHONIES KV 425 “LINZ”,” KV 385 “HAFFNER”, Netherlands Chamber Orchestra, Gordan Nikolić/Tacet S230 SACD  When the Tacet label extols the virtues of its ‘real surround sound’, it is speaking with nothing less than the absolute truth. The company’s policy of placing the listener absolutely central in any musical experience – in other words, utilising all available channels of the SACD medium for more than just ambience and locating the instruments both behind and in front of the listener — has at times been a controversial one, but the impressive results speak for themselves. For those with a proper equipment (and that naturally includes classical listeners with a taste for the richest and most comprehensive reproduction of sound values), the Tacet discs are a truly exhilarating listening experience. That is very much the case with these pointed and athletic performances of two of Mozart’s best loved symphonies. Part of the success of the Tacet label is the fact that with this particular recording method, every strand of the orchestration can be heard with total clarity – and this Mozart disc is the perfect calling card.

HANDEL: ODE FOR ST CECILIA’S DAY, Dunedin Consort, John Butt/Linn CKD578  With its dramatic and colourful sound values, this recording of Handel’s ever-popular choral piece bids fair to be the most impressive reading of the piece in years – and one that at a stroke become the definitive available version. While taking on board current practices in Handel performance, there is a warmth and affection to the reading that is pleasantly redolent of an earlier era – the best of all possible worlds, in fact. A rich and colourful tribute to music’s patron saint, recorded during this year’s Misteria Paschalia Festival in Poland, the Dunedin Consort’s performance of Handel’s Ode for St Cecilia’s Day sees them joined for the first time by tenor Ian Bostridge and soprano Carolyn Sampson. Bostridge demonstrates the technical mastery and vocal precision that has seen him win many of the major international record prizes in his twenty-five year career. Highly sought-after for her refined Baroque sensibilities and pure intonation, Sampson’s lyric soprano is ideally suited to Handel. Led by John Butt, with singers from the Polish Radio Choir, this rich and colourful tribute to music’s patron saint is the latest in their much-lauded Handel discography, which includes Messiah, Acis & Galatea and Esther, each having won widespread acclaim.

HANDEL: ABBANDONANTA: ITALIAN CANTATAS, Carolyn Sampson, at the Kings Consort, Robert King/Vivat 117  Along with the recording of Handel’s Ode to St Cecilia’s Day discussed above, this disc clearly proves that we are living in something of a golden age of Handel recordings. Apart from its considerable musical values (notably a strong, incisive approach to the cantatas, with Carolyn Sampson in glorious voice), this is something of a deluxe presentation with a 60 page booklet as part of the package.

PARRY: ORCHESTRAL WORKS, BBC National Chorus & Orchestra of Wales / Rumon Gamba/ CHAN 10994  Admirers of Vaughan Williams sometimes turn to the music of one of his tutors, Parry, to hear pre-echoes of their favourite composer. But it has to be said that this is usually done more in the spirit of optimism than realism, as Vaughan Williams was by far the more radical musician. But Parry’s music has its appeal, as this disc from Chandos Records proves, and this is an attractive collection, if hardly proof that Parry belongs along with on the slopes of Mount Parnassus with such composers as Elgar and Britten. To commemorate the centenary of Parry’s death, Rumon Gamba and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales offer this rare album of major works never recorded before, at the centre of which stands the original version of Parry’s Symphony No. 4.

RIMSKY AND CO. : ORIGINALS, Various orchestras, Major Arjan Tien/Channel Classics CCSA 4818  This is a novel concept, brought off rather winningly. Lesser-known pieces by Prokofiev (the Athletic Festival March) and Khachaturian’s To the Heroes of the Russian War (both, as their titles suggest, a touch tub-thumping — if fun) are set against more familiar pieces by Stravinsky and Shostakovich in lively enthusiastic performances.

A FESTIVAL OF NINE LESSONS AND CAROLS, Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, Stephen Cleobury/King’s College Cambridge Double CD  The first observation that should be made about this mellifluous recording is just how faithfully the sound engineers (in the later recordings) have captured the experience of hearing the music in situ. We are used to impressive recordings of the Choir of Kings College from their own label, so there is not a quantum leap here – merely a continuation of the recording tradition established earlier in which the finessing of the distinctive timbre of the choir is matched with performances that do full justice to the perfectly judged musical values. The attraction here is partly due to the fact that this special double album presents the lengthy history of the choir via such directors of music as David Willcocks, Philip Ledger and (of course) Stephen Cleobury in recordings which reach from the late 1950s to the present. It is a fascinating aural history.

STRAVINSKY: PETRUSHKA, JEU DE CARTES, Mariinsky Orchestra, Valery Gergiev/Mariinsky SACD MARO577 Interestingly, this is the second of two recordings of Stravinsky’s Jeu de Cartes to surface in the same month, and it’s a close call as to which is the first to appear in the surround sound medium. Needless to say, Gergiev has the measure of this winning (if neglected) Stravinsky piece, and if his Petrushka is more rough and ready than most, it does not shortchange the listener in terms of excitement or vitality.

RICHARD STRAUSS: ABER DER RICHTIGE: VIOLIN CONCERTO AND MINIATURES, Arabella Steinbacher WDR Symphony Orchestra, Lawrence Foster/PENTATAONE SACD PTC 5186653  While even the most ardent Straussian would hardly make a claim for the modest Violin Concerto being one of his masterpieces, it is an amiable enough piece (if not particularly characteristic), and enjoys the best possible advocacy by Arabella Steinbacher here. The violinist, we learn, is called ‘Arabella’ after Strauss’s opera (her parents were both Straussians), and the violin and orchestra transcription of that opera’s most famous aria, Aber der richtige, gives this collection its name. It is poetically played, as are the transcriptions of songs, etc., which make of the second half of this SACD. Not major Strauss, but a disc that will find favour with many.

STRAVINSKY: THE RITE OF SPRING, FUNERAL SONG, GAME OF CARDS, CONCERTO IN D, AGON, Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg, Gustavo Gimeno, Pentataone SACD PTC 518 6650  This highly useful two-disc set is an extremely convenient way for listeners to accrue (in excellent SACD sound) some familiar and lesser known pieces by Stravinsky. For many it will not be the appeal of yet another Rite of Spring that makes this an attractive set, but the opportunity to acquire such works as Jeu de Cartes (see the rival reading above) and even to reassess the knotty but intriguing Agon. We are also given the first recording in surround sound of the recently discovered Funeral Song.

Marina Rebeka’s new label Prima Classic launches with Spirito

Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka, very much a rising star in the opera world, releases an album of dramatic Bel Canto scenes and arias by Bellini, Donizetti and Spontini – carefully researched from original manuscripts – as the first recording on her new independent label, Prima Classic. ‘Spirito’, with Jader Bignamini conducting the Teatro Massimo di Palermo Orchestra and Chorus, is released by Proper Music Distribution on Friday 9 November.  Prima Classic plans to release up to four recordings annually, a mixture of full operas and operatic recitals with world-class singers, largely recorded with orchestras in different opera houses and concert halls across Europe. For mixing and mastering these projects, a new studio has been built in Latvia.

Naxos completes Wagner Ring Cycle with Götterdämmerung

On 9th November 2018, Naxos releases Götterdämmerung, the fourth and final opera of Wagner’s mighty Ring Cycle, on CD, audio Blu-ray and digital formats. The release of this album concludes a three-year journey started in January 2015 which has seen the Hong Kong Philharmonic, under their dynamic Music Director Jaap van Zweden, record Der Ring des Nibelungen over four successive seasons. The highly acclaimed project features an all-star international Wagner cast, led by soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin in her debut as Brünnhilde, tenor Daniel Brenna as Siegfried, bass-baritone Shenyang as Gunther, bass Eric Halfvarson as Hagen, soprano Amanda Majeski as Gutrune and mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung as Waltraute, with the Bamberg Symphony Chorus, Latvian State Choir and the Hong Kong Philharmonic Chorus. Simultaneously, Naxos releases the complete Der Ring des Nibelungen, as a special boxed set. Containing 14 CDs, the box also features a USB card loaded with extra content, including the libretti to all four operas, concert photos and behind-the-scenes video.