Invigorating New World & St John Passion

 

DVORAK: Symphony No.9 in E minor ‘From the New World’, Houston Symphony Orchestra, Orozco-Estrada/ PENTATONE SACD PTC 5186 574  This, the third and final release of Andrés Orozco-Estrada’s survey with the Houston Symphony of Dvorak’s four most popular symphonies for the PENTATONE label is completed by the composer’s most popular work, the celebrated Symphony No.9 in E minor ‘From the New World’. With a plethora of recordings of the New World Symphony available on both CD and High Resolution formats (SACD and Blu-ray) collectors face a daunting though pleasurable task in choosing one or more versions for their libraries. It is fair to say, however, that those who enjoyed the earlier two Dvorak releases from this charismatic conductor are unlikely to be disappointed with this new one. The many desirable qualities that graced the previous two releases are once again in abundance here, not least the marvellously accomplished orchestral playing from the Houston Symphony captured in sumptuous recorded sound. As is the norm these days, Orozco-Estrada makes the first movement exposition repeat and his spacious tempi in all four movements are sane and generally unexceptionable. There are, however, a couple idiosyncratic tics in the Columbian maestro’s interpretation that might be regarded as somewhat mannered and could become irritating, especially on repeated listening. In the opening movement Orozco-Estrada relaxes the tempo excessively at each appearance of the movement’s slower sections (the first introduced by the woodwind, the second reminiscent of the spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”) and this, to some degree, dissipates the overall forward momentum of the music. A similar event occurs in the otherwise lively and robust Scherzo when Orozco-Estrada slams on the brakes as the Trio section is reached. In contrast the famous Largo is well paced with the touching cor anglais solo from Adam Dinitz especially poignant, while the finale is dispatched with considerable energy and drama. The two Slavonic Dances (Nos. 3 and 5) from Dvorak’s Opus 46 set make a most agreeable if rather brief fill-up to the Symphony on a disc with a total playing time of just 54.16. Both are performed with affectionate charm and also plenty of bounce in the faster sections. As was the case with the former two releases the team from Soundmirror, Boston, have produced an exemplary recording. The sound is full and rich with a wide stereo spread that does full justice to the fine playing from all sections of the Houston Symphony, whilst Andrés Orozco-Estrada’s skilful balancing of the orchestra’s weighty brass and luxuriant strings ensures that the many characterful wind solos are never obscured. As was the case with the former two releases the experienced team from Soundmirror, Boston, have produced an exemplary recording. The sound is full and rich with a wide stereo spread that does full justice to the fine playing from all sections of the Houston Symphony, whilst Andrés Orozco-Estrada’s skilful balancing of the orchestra’s weighty brass and luxuriant strings ensures that the many characterful wind solos are never obscured. Dvorak’s 9th Symphony was recorded at Jesse H Jones Hall for the Performing Arts in Houston (May 2016) while the Slavonic Dances emanate from an earlier concert (September 2015). In spite of my reservations stated above this SACD will give much pleasure to many, though it never challenges the finest of the considerable competition available elsewhere, nor for that matter Yakov Kreizberg’s sympathetic account with the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestraalso to be found on the PENTATONE label.

BACH ST. JOHN PASSION, Soloists, Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, Stephen Cleobury, KG50018  The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge are building a most impressive discography on their own label, one that spans 400 years of liturgical music in many styles and includes works by Gabrieli. Mozart, Fauré and Duruflé. Their recorded performances are further enhanced by the use of high resolution audio technology. On this latest release they are conducted by Stephen Cleobury who has guided and nurtured this choir for the past 25 years. This recording of Bach’s St. John Passion is taken from two live performances of the work given on 21st and 22nd March 2016 in the Chapel of King’s College whose very special acoustic is beautifully recreated on this hybrid multi-channel SACD (24-bit / 96kHz) and thankfully there is no trace whatsoever of an audience presence. Stephen Cleobury has chosen to perform the Passion in Bach’s original version of 1724, prepared for the composer’s first Holy Week as cantor in Leipzig, rather than his final version of 1749 used by some interpreters. His judiciously chosen tempi ensure that the momentum and dramatic thrust of the music is constantly maintained yet is never driven so hard that the beauty and expressiveness of the many sublime arias are compromised. The line-up of soloists for this recording could hardly be improved upon. The Evangelist of James Gilchrist is outstanding. He brings vivid characterisation to the narrative and, thanks to the bright appealing quality of his voice and commendably clear diction, holds one’s attention throughout. Neal Davies is a commanding Christus who brings his considerable operatic experience to this role and his utterances are always beautifully judged and firmly delivered. Iestyn Davies confirms his reputation as one of today’s finest counter tenors with his impeccable singing of the alto arias. The second of these, “Es ist vollbracht”, is both moving and, in the central florid passage, joyfully triumphant. The expressive viola da gamba playing of Liam Byrne is in perfect accord with Davies’s lovely voice. Roderick Williams delivers a confident account of the florid bass aria “Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen” and his Pilatus is marked with both dignity and restraint. Sophie Bevan gives an entrancing account of the two soprano arias, her bright fresh voice making an effective contrast with Lisa Beznosiuk’s soft toned flute obbligato. The words of the chorus are occasionally blurred by the reverberant acoustic of the Chapel but this is a minor criticism when compared with the magnificent sound made by the young choristers in the Choir. As one might expect the vastly experienced musicians of the Academy of Ancient Music provide excellent support with eloquent playing of the various obbligatos and, at a strength of 21 instrumentalists, they provide a full rich sound, but one that never overpowers the chorus.
The performance lasts 109’32” thus necessitating dividing the work between the two SACDs. Here the break between the two discs comes in Part II and provides a moment of reflection after Ed Lyons’s ardent singing of the taxing tenor aria “Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken”. Some recordings place the shorter Part I on the first disc and the longer Part II the on the second – surely the best solution? The liner booklet provides full German / English texts, biographical details of the performers and informative notes on the work by Stephen Rose.The countless admirer’s of King’s College Choir will be delighted with this recording that is in every respect worthy to stand among the finest versions of this much recorded Passion.