Spruced-up Strauss

RICHARD STRAUSS: SALOME & ELEKTRA, Birgit Nilsson, Soloists, Vienna Philharmonic, Georg Solti/Universal Blu-ray Audio 4831498  & 4831494 (both 3 discs, inc. 1 Blu-ray audio) Audiophiles and opera lovers alike have been fervently hoping that Universal might give the same Blu-ray audio spruce-up to these classic Decca sets – for many years the definitive reading of Richard Strauss’s operas – that the company had accorded to such recordings as Karajan’s Madama Butterfly and Solti’s Ring. Now those wistful wishes have come to fruition and we may hear anew – in astonishingly detailed pre-digital sound – what Nilsson, Solti and producer John Culshaw achieved in their heyday. If the latter’s famous aural effects now seem like a certain gilding of the lily, there is no gainsaying the power and drama of the performances, with Nilsson at her matchless best. And both operas are complete on one Blu-ray disc each (with CDs also included). A Richard Strauss cornucopia indeed.

SACD OF THE MONTH: SZYMANOWSKI, KARŁOWICZ: VIOLIN CONCERTOS, Tasmin Little / BBC Symphony Orchestra / Edward Gardner Chandos CHSA 5185  There have been previous performances available on CD of this evocative (and somewhat neglected) Polish music, including versions on the Chandos label, as is this one – although that was in stereo only. But here we have (in glorious surround sound) performances of these pieces which at a stroke become nigh-definitive, with the persuasive combination of Little’s strikingly poetic playing and Gardner’s typically incisive approach to the subtle orchestral writing. What’s more, with three concerti on offer, this represents something of a bargain with its generous playing time. This SACD recording follows performances that The Guardian described as ‘a thrilling show of ferocity and feistiness’, given by the same forces in January at the Barbican. All three pieces were written within the space of a generation (1902, 1916, and 1933), and yet they belong to quite different worlds.

SHOSTAKOVICH: SYMPHONY NO. 5/BARBER: ADAGIO FOR STRINGS, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Manfred Honeck/Reference Recordings SACD RRFR-724  One might argue that the most recorded of Shostakovich’s symphonies hardly needs another reading, but that’s not taking into account the muscular approach that Manfred Honeck takes here, continuing his unbroken series of impressive recordings for the Reference label. If Honeck concentrates more on the sheer elemental power of the piece rather than its moments of menacing repose (as opposed to Dmitrij Kitajenko’s memorable reading of the Fifth as part of his complete cycle), this is music that responds well to that particular orientation. If the fill-up, yet another performance of Barber’s Adagio might occasion some disappointment, it should be noted that this is a particularly sensitive reading of Barber’s calling card piece, even if one wishes that Honeck might have chosen something Russian as accompaniment — Glinka’s Ruslan and Ludmilla overture, for instance. Customarily exemplary audiophile sound enhances Honeck’s performance. The conductor’s notes reminds us that Joseph Stalin’s Soviet government was offended by the composer’s previous works. Under threat of arrest or banishment to Siberia, Shostakovich devised a new, less-complex compositional style for the 5th Symphony, still full of irony and double meaning, to appease Stalin and appeal to the common people.

GRANADOS: GOYESCAS, José Menor, piano/IBS 82017  Granados’ masterpiece for piano has been fortunate in its recordings over the years, not least with what many regard as the definitive take, that by Alicia de la Rocha on Decca. This new version from José Menor is a contender, displaying both grace and sensitivity, although the recording of the piano sound has as a slight restriction in the upper register.

STRAUSS: THE COMPLETE SONGS, VOLUME 8, Nicky Spence, Rebecca Evans, Roger Vignoles/Hyperion CDA68185  Many listeners would argue that the greatest songwriters in the classical repertoire are Schubert and Strauss, and both composers have enjoyed copious recorded attention over the years. This particular cycle from Hyperion is a notable addition to the lists, with singers of great sensitivity impeccably accompanied by the always reliable Roger Vignoles. The pianist astutely notes that Strauss’s songs cannot be played ‘without a vivid sense of the orchestral colours and textures that they imply’, so how better to conclude our series of the complete songs than with the piano-accompanied versions of the Vier letzte Lieder? These wondrous valedictions are the summation of a great composer’s love affair with the voice, written at the very end of a long creative life.’

PICKARD: SYMPHONY NO. 5; SIXTEEN SUNRISES; CONCERTANTE VARIATIONS FOR WIND QUINTET, TIMPANI AND STRINGS; TOCCATA (MONTEVERDI), TRANSCRIPTION FOR ENSEMBLE AFTER CLAUDIO MONTEVERDI, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Martyn Brabbins/BIS2261  The BIS label has something of a knack for discovering unfamiliar music worthy of our attention, and that is (with some reservations) what it has once again achieved here. Although Pickard’s music perhaps lacks that final ounce of distinction, it is still highly professional and impeccably judged in terms of its balance of orchestral forces Born in 1963, John Pickard is best known for a series of powerful orchestral and instrumental works; previous recordings of his music on BIS have received critical acclaim. The present disc brings together some of Pickard’s most recent orchestral compositions, in performances by two of his long-term collaborators: the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and conductor Martyn Brabbins. The opening work is Symphony No. 5, which was composed in 2014 with these performers in mind. Lasting some thirty minutes, the symphony is in a single movement. The symphony is followed by Sixteen Sunrises; the title of the piece refers to the number of sunrises that can be observed during a twenty-four-hour period from the International Space Station (ISS), as it orbits the earth.

RAVEL: DAPHNIS ET CHLOÉ, UNE BARQUE SUR L’OCÉAN, PAVANE POUR UNE INFANTE DÉFUNTE, Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg, Gustavo Gimeno/PENTATONE PTC 5186 652  Over the years, Ravel’s masterpiece has been particularly fortunate in its various recordings, with even the SACD medium now able to boast several rivals. If this new performance doesn’t quite dislodge such predecessors as Haitink and Gergiev, it is still a highly commendable. Gimeno conjures much of the sensuality of the music. Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé is widely regarded as his greatest orchestral masterpiece and one of the 20th century’s finest ballet scores. This vast musical fresco with its shimmering harmonies, magical diaphanous textures and spectacular conclusion is compellingly realised by Gustavo Gimeno and the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg in this eagerly awaited release from PentaTone. The album also contains the haunting and exquisite Pavane pour une infante défunte and the vividly scored Une barque sur l’océan. Stravinsky regarded Daphnis et Chloé as “not only Ravel’s best work, but also one of the most beautiful products of French music” and it’s easy to see why.

STRAUSS: CONCERTO IN D MAJOR FOR OBOE AND SMALL ORCHESTRA, TRV 292; SERENADE IN E FLAT MAJOR, TRV 106; SONATINA NO. 2 IN E FLAT MAJOR (FRÖHLICHE WERKSTATT), TRV 291, Alexei Ogrintchouk, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Winds of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Andris Nelsons/ BIS2163 Admirers of Richard Strauss (a group I belong to) have an inordinate fondness for the works on this particular disc, and these readings even rival such illustrious predecessors as Rudolf Kempe. As the Second World War was coming to an end, the eighty-year-old Strauss was working on his Oboe Concerto and Sonatina No. 2 for winds, as well as the Metamorphosen for strings. While the latter work was an explicit response to the destruction Strauss was witnessing, in the Concerto and the Sonatina the composer seemed to be turning his mind away from the events surrounding him. To an extent, one might say that Strauss at the end of his life returned to the musical models of his youth. It is therefore fitting that these two works frame the Serenade in E flat major for wind ensemble, composed more than sixty years earlier in the tradition of entertainment music by Schubert and Mendelssohn.

DEBUSSY: LA MER, ARIETTES OUBLIÉES, FAURÉ: PELLÉAS ET MELISANDE, Robin Ticciati, Magdalena Kozena, DSO Berlin, Linn CKD550  For admirers of the Linn label, It is a real source of regret that the splendid series of recordings by the conductor Robin Ticciati from the company in truly superb surround sound have now been downgraded to stereo only, although (it has to be said) it is stereo of superlative quality. And the performances are as nonpareil as ever — as with this intriguing coupling. The rarity here is the orchestration by Brett Dean of Debussy’s songs Ariettes Oubliées, sensitively sung by Magdalena Kozena and which in this new iteration add an intriguing new piece to the recorded repertoire of the French composer.

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: THE POISONED KISS (OVERTURE); THREE PORTRAITS FROM ‘THE ENGLAND OF ELIZABETH’; BUCOLIC SUITE; IN THE FEN COUNTRY; FANTASIA ON SUSSEX FOLK TUNES, Martin Rummel, Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz, Karl-Heinz Steffens /Capriccio C5314  It should be said at the start that there are rival performances of most of this music which have an ounce more fluidity and feeling but as a program, this is a particularly successful issue, bringing together several rarities that will attract new listeners. Around the beginning of the 20th century, Ralph Vaughan Williams, together with his friend Gustav Holst, deliberately began to free his compositional style from ‘German influences’, moving towards a more British musical style and finding inspirational models in English folk music. Most of the works recorded here are lesser-known pieces by the composer, but each clearly reflects Vaughan Williams’ uniquely personal style.

MOZART: PIANO CONCEROS 25 &26, Francesco Piemontesi, piano, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Andrew Manze/Linn CKD544   Manze’s adroitness as orchestral accompanist remain as ironclad as ever with these Mozart concertos granted a very persuasive advocacy, even in the teeth of some impressive competition. Described as a ‘stellar Mozartian’ Francesco Piemontesi finds a perfect partner in the Scottish Chamber Orchestra whose impeccable credentials are widely acknowledged. Conductor Andrew Manze, well known as a HIP pioneer, shares Piemontesi’s approach to creating an authentic performance, making this somewhat of a Mozart dream team. Francesco Piemontesi is a pianist of exceptional refinement of expression, which is allied to a consummate technical skill.

STRAUSS: ALSO SPRACH ZARATHUSTRA, MAHLER: TOTENFEIER Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, Vladimir Jurowski/Penta Tone PTC 5186597 If you are seeking the perfect Also Sprach Zarathustra in surround sound, it has to be said that your search will have to continue, even though this new disc is a very creditable entry. The sound picture has many of the attributes that we associate with PentaTone, although even the now-ageing Charles Mackerras reading in artificially produced surround sound has greater dynamic range and impact. Nevertheless, Jurowski is clearly a conductor who has the measure of this glorious score and (for the most part) ensures that the various sections of Strauss’s masterpiece cohere. The Mahler filler is a curious choice, particularly for those who would rather hear the composer’s Second Symphony, his final thoughts on the music here. Nevertheless a disc of impressive music making. Vladimir Jurowski and the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin have set down these new recordings of Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra and Mahler’s Totenfeier for PENTATONE to coincide with the Russian maestro taking up office as Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of the orchestra. Strauss’s bold and passionate tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra is a riveting work, famous for its startlingly atmospheric opening.

HOLST: ORCHESTRAL WORKS, Soloists / City of London Sinfonia / Richard Hickox/Chandos CHAN 10948 X  A memory of the contribution that the much-missed conductor Richard Hickox made to the Chandos label — and to the cause of British music. This 1994 recording is one of the first Holst collections made by Hickox and the City of London Sinfonia, an orchestra which he conducted for thirty-seven years, until his death. It brought several neglected works (including the St Paul’s and Brook Green suites, as well as the Concerto for Two Violins) to greater international recognition.

WALLFISCH: ANNABELLE: CREATION, Silva Screen SI LCD 1551  The Silva Screen label has long been the home of impressive new recordings of film soundtracks, with a dedication to the art which is much to be commended. This new recording of a Benjamin Wallfisch score reveals its secrets slowly rather than in a rush, and the tempo (and emotional temperature) is for the most part subdued. Nevertheless, for the patient listener, this is music of colour and invention.