Classical CD Choice Disc of the Month: VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: SINFONIA ANTARTICA, ETC., Soloists / Bergen Philharmonic / Sir Andrew Davis/Chandos CHSA 5186 There have been several complete cycles of years of Vaughan Williams’ remarkable nine symphonies (beginning with the celebrated Adrian Boult accounts), but one particularly distinguished cycle (the first complete sequence in in surround sound) seemed to be benighted — that inaugurated by Chandos with the late conductor Richard Hickox. Before his death, Hickox committed some powerfully persuasive readings, notably a definitive reading of the original version of the London Symphony, and a blistering account of the muscular Fourth, but his VW sequence was not be completed because of his early death. However, Chandos wisely commissioned Andrew Davis to commit the missing symphonies to disc, and a recent strong recording of the Ninth (coupled with the ballet Job) is now followed by a very persuasive Sinfonia Antartica. Intensely atmosphere, bleak and dramatic by turn, this reading has a breathtaking climax in the landscape movement, in which the breaking of an ice floe is conveyed by a thunderous organ passage. In the surround sound medium, it almost goes without saying that this has never been better done. This long-awaited concluding entry in Chandos’s historic series of Vaughan Williams’s Symphonies sports an exceptional cast and a rare combination of repertoire. While the indefatigable piano duo Louis Lortie and Hélène Mercier tackle the virtuosic Double Piano Concerto, the baritone Roderick Williams OBE offers breathtaking interpretations of the rarely heard, yet passionate Four Last Songs.
BRITTEN AND HINDEMITH: VIOLIN CONCERTOS, Arabella Steinbacher, Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin and Vladimir Jurowski/PentaTone PTC 5186625 SACD When so many couplings on classical music discs are devised almost by the numbers, one has to recognise real initiative – and that is precisely what happens with this very cherishable PentaTone disc coupling two 20th-century concerti that, we discover, perfectly complement each other in their combination of sinewy modern orchestral colouration and deep and profound feeling. All facets of both Britten and Hindemith’s concerti are explored in these readings which become nigh-definitive (without quite displacing earlier readings – differently coupled — in the SACD medium) Arabella Steinbacher excels in the lyrical, troubled and profound violin concertos of Britten and Hindemith; breathtaking virtuosity flows seamlessly with expansive lyrical passages and fiendish passagework. Britten’s haunting and mesmerising violin concerto is considered one of the 20th century’s finest. The three contrasting movements are replete with grand theatrical gestures, unabashed lyricism, and show-stopping pyrotechnics, the work closing with an austere passacaglia of other-worldly beauty and power.
MAHLER: SYMPHONY NUMBER EIGHT, Utah Symphony, Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Thierry Fischer Reference Recordings SACD FR725 Music lovers of an earlier generation will remember the impact that Georg Solti’s recording of the Mahler 8 made in its day: a dynamic performance in what was (for its day) state-of-the-art sound. And if ever a piece was designed to test the limits of recorded music in a domestic setting, it is this gargantuan symphony. Since Solti’s groundbreaking discs, there have been a variety of recordings of the Eighth — from the indifferent to the spectacular — but Thierry Fischer’s Utah recording will take some beating, not just its remarkable sensitivity to the composer’s intentions (every nuance and facet is found, from the more restrained colouristic passages to the great swells of orchestral excitement), captured in a recording which does full justice to the immense sound picture. The fact of that recording is so technically impressive will, of course, will come as no surprise to those used to the company Reference Recordings, which for some considerable time has been among the world’s best in setting down performances in the finest surround sound the medium is capable of. Generally speaking, the Mormon Tabernacle choir have a precision which matches Fischer’s breadth of vision.
STRAVINSKY: THE RITE OF SPRING LIGETI BERG, WEBERN London Symphony Orchestra LSO Live LSO 3028 Blu-ray and DVD This writer’s conversations with the conductor Simon Rattle some decades ago once centred on Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which Rattle rightly regarded as a lodestone in any modern conductor’s repertoire. Even as a young man, Rattle was not daunted by the Mount Parnassus reputation of the piece, and has long been one of its most powerful advocates. But, not surprisingly this latest disc – finally, in the kind of SACD sound that does justice to his vision – becomes his finest reading yet of the piece. Rattle’s triumphant return to Britain and the London Symphony Orchestra continues to be marked with some remarkable new performances – in the case of this set one of the warhorses of then-modern repertoire with several pieces of hardly enjoying the attention that Stravinsky’s masterpiece has been accorded in the years. What is particularly welcome about this set is its highly attractive presentation of a Blu-ray audio and a DVD which give the perfect visual record of the concerts from which the pieces were drawn. And this particular aspect is an asset in the delightful performance of Ligeti’s eccentric piece for soprano and orchestra, Mysteries of the Macabre, in which soprano Barbara Hannigan struts onstage in a jailbait outfit with white cotton socks, blowing bubble gum; the erotic playfulness perfectly matches an approachable work. If The Rite of Spring is not among the most kinetic performances Rattle has given of the work, it is still remarkably impressive and captured in sound of great depth and impact.
DEBUSSY: JEUX, KHAMMA, LA BOÎTE À JOUJOUX, Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Lan Shui /BIS2162 SACD A very welcome disc from the ever-reliable BIS label including three pieces by Debussy, which have not heretofore shared the same surround sound disc (although the late masterpiece Jeux has enjoyed an excellent SACD performance conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas in San Francisco). As in previous recordings of the music of Debussy, Lan Shui once again demonstrates that he has the full measure of the composer’s idiom – and the conductor might even be said to have finessed the pieces not orchestrated by the composer to make them sound impeccably Debussyian — a task aided considerably by the superb BIS sound. Debussy conceived three works as ballets, and they are gathered on this recording. All three were written between 1911–1913, during a period when the composer was under some financial pressure, and in the case of Khamma, Debussy himself admitted that ‘considerations of domestic finances’ contributed to him undertaking the commission for this ‘danced legend’. Having finished the piano score, Debussy asked Charles Koechlin to complete the orchestration under his supervision. He was more enthusiastic about a commission from the highly fashionable Ballets Russes, and did indeed complete Jeux himself, which Pierre Boulez regarded as one of the most prophetic works of the twentieth century. La Boîte à joujoux (‘The Toybox’) completes this collection.
FANTASY: SCHUMANN, CPE BACH, SCHUBERT, Danae Dorken, piano ARS 38150 SACD A piquant choice of repertoire here: three pieces linked by being written in the ‘fantasy’idiom form, but providing some unusual bedfellows – when did you last hear a disc which featured keyboard music by both CPE Bach and Schubert? Danae Dorken’s performances are full of grace and authority, and the combination of the three pieces make for a most satisfying program.
PROKOFIEV: VIOLIN CONCERTO No. 2, etc., Roseanne Philippens, Sinfonieorchester St Gallen, Otto Tausk/Challenge Classic CCS39517 There seems to have been something of a fashion for recordings of the Prokofiev Second Violin Concerto in recent years, but this is as striking and impassioned a rendition as one is likely to encounter, although it must be pointed out that it is in stereo sound only, not the surround sound to be heard among other recent readings. Roseanne Philippens has a sure grasp of Prokofiev’s colourful and distinctive writing, and one of the particular pleasures of the disc is her reading of the Violin Sonata in D major, folding in much impressive Russian feeling.
HAUSEGGER: BARBAROSSA (SYMPHONIC POEM); DREI HYMNEN AN DIE NACHT FOR BARITONE & ORCHESTRA, Hans Christoph Begemann, Norrköping Symphony Orchestra, Antony Hermu/CPO 777666-2 Let’s be honest – who, a decade or so ago, would have been familiar with the music of Hausegger? The composer’s name was simply something we’d read in reference books, but the CPO label has demonstrated that this is a neglected composer whose music (largely speaking in the vein of Richard Strauss or Mahler) deserves investigation. This latest disc is another remarkable discovery: a major piece dusted off and given what appears to be a totally authoritative reading.
GRANADOS: ORCHESTRAL WORKS, Barcelona Symphony Orchestra, Pablo González/ NAXOS V8.503295 [3-CD boxed set] This is a very attractive collection of music, little of which will be familiar to the listener. To celebrate the 150th anniversary of Enrique Granados’s birth the three internationally admired volumes of his orchestral discs have been brought together. The set includes one of the greatest pieces in all Spanish music, the Intermezzo from Goyescas, as well as much that is exceptionally rare, such as an impressive symphonic poem.
RACHMANINOV: VIRTUOSO ARRANGEMENTS VOL. 2, Martin Jones, Nimbus NI5695 Those of us who love the piano music of Rachmaninov tend to have an inordinate affection for it – and we really want to hear every piece that the composer wrote for his own instrument, both major and minor. This second collection of less celebrated pieces shows that Rachmaninov’s commitment to piano music was total. However, significant (or otherwise) the piece, Martin Jones matches the composer’s own celebrated virtuosity on his instrument.
VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Dona Nobis Pacem, BERNSTEIN: Chichester Psalms, Choir of Kings College, Cambridge, soloists, Britten Sinfonia, Stephen Cleobury, Kings College KG 50021 SACD It was an intriguing notion to put these two remarkable 20th-century masterpieces for chorus and soloists on the same disc, and it is particularly welcome to have Dona Nobis Pacem making its debut in the surround sound medium. These are strong and committed performances, but there are caveats. Never have the orchestral passages in the RVW piece sounded as impressive as on this Cleobury disc, but — uncharacteristically for this label – some of the recordings of the choral passages are lacking clarity and the text is less clear than on rival recordings. That being said, these are strong performances and fully merit the listener’s attention.
DANIEL JONES: SYMPHONIES 2 & 11, Bryden Thomson Lyrita SRCD364 Hardly major masterpieces, Daniel Jones’ symphonies are solidly composed, attractive music which are here given readings under the late Bryden Thomson which makes the best possible case for the works.
KARAYEV: ORCHESTRAL WORKS, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra / Kirill Karabits/Chandos CHSA 5203 More neglected music, from a company that specialises in presenting new avenues for the more adventurous listener This set of idiomatically lyrical, rhythmic, and colourful pieces with the Bournemouth SO and its Chief Conductor, Kirill Karabits, who appears on Chandos for the first time, marks the start of a new series dedicated to lesser-known composers from former Soviet Union countries.
BORUP-JORENSEN: MARIN, Soloists, DNSO, Thomas Sondergard/ OUR Recordings, 21104 26 This curious package (containing both a DVD and a Super Audio CD) contains both an animated film and a portrait of the composer Axel Borup-Jorgensen. The music (unquestionably in avant-garde idiom) is written for a very disparate collection of instruments, which the composer utilises to the full. Not for every taste, but those of adventurous mien might find this a worthwhile investment.
BORENSTEIN: ORCHESTRAL WORKS, Irmina Trynkos / Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Ashkenazy/Chandos CHSA 5209 SACD The dedication of the Chandos label to bringing unfamiliar and accessible classical music to disc is well known and celebrated among classical music listeners , and this latest issue continues that tradition. Conducting the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra and the promising young violinist Irmina Trynkos, Vladimir Ashkenazy marks his 80th birthday by bringing the orchestral music of Nimrod Borenstein, a long-time protégé, to SACD for the first time. I have to confess that despite the professionalism and colourful writing on offer here, I found it difficult to detect an individual character to the music. But if you share Ashkenazy’s enthusiasm for Borenstein, then it’s hard to imagine these pieces being better performed.
CHISHOLM: VIOLIN CONCERTO & DANCE SUITE, Matthew Trusler, Danny Driver, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Martyn Brabbins/Hyperion CDA68208 If you’d asked a lover of British music a couple of decades ago If they’d heard the work of Eric Chisholm, you would probably have received a blank stare. Fortunately, that egregious neglect is being remedied with a series of issues from different companies that demonstrate Chisholm was a highly individual talent — and certainly did not warrant his nigh-invisible status. The very characterful music on this disc may be may of some help in redressing the balance. A bracing excursion to the Indian subcontinent via the Scottish Highlands: the compelling force of Scottish modernism, with Matthew Trusler and Danny Driver are the committed soloists in the two large-scale concertante works.
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS, Rebecca CLARKE, Benjamin BRITTEN: Let Beauty Awake, Ellen Nisbeth, Bengt Forsberg/BIS 2182 Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel has been particularly lucky on disc, enjoying a variety of impeccable vocal performances. But even RVW admirers may not be prepared for this latest outing, in which certain songs in the cycle are intelligently transcribed for violin. The results are highly persuasive, without quite displacing the original, but remaining pleasing. Swedish violist Ellen Nisbeth, hailing from a family of Scottish origin, feels a particular affinity for the landscapes of Scotland, and for the Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson. For her first recital disc Ellen Nisbeth has devised an all- British programme which includes her own transcriptions of selected songs from Songs of Travel – Ralph Vaughan Williams’s settings of poems by Stevenson. The songs intersperse the remainder of the programme, and one of them – Let Beauty Awake – has also lent its title to the entire disc. Together with the eminent pianist and chamber musician Bengt Forsberg, Nisbeth goes on to perform the impassioned Viola Sonata composed in 1919 by Rebecca Clarke, and Benjamin Britten’s Third Suite for Cello, transcribed for viola by Rebecca Clarke, and Benjamin Britten’s Third Suite for Cello, transcribed for viola by Ellen Nisbeth herself. This is a disc that will find a ready audience.
Richard RODGERS, George GERSHWIN, Frank LOESSER, Jerome KERN, Leonard BERNSTEIN, Mitch LEIGH Glorious Quest Rodney Earl Clarke, Christopher Gould/STONE 5060192780758 A personal, caveat. Although the piano transcriptions by played by Christopher Gould here are as adroit as one could wish, those who love this glorious music will be missing the superb orchestral arrangements (usually by the Dean of Broadway orchestrators, Robert Russell Bennett), with which they are customarily arrayed. That said, however, this is still an attractive disc. Many music lovers would argue that the best work by the great Broadway composers such as Gershwin, Rodgers and Kern is a match for many more ‘respectable’ art songs, a premise that this collection comprehensively proves. Without quite shaking the customary sense that a popular non-trained singer might perhaps find the best in these pieces, this is a beautifully sung recital. Glorious Quest is the debut album from British baritone Rodney Earl Clarke.
LAJTHA: SYMPHONIES NOS. 8 AND 9, Pécs Symphony Orchestra,• Nicolás Pasquet/NAXOS The welcome series of Marco Polo issues of Lajtha’s music on the Naxos label continues apace – and this is a particularly cherishable issue. Reflecting Hungary’s troubled times following the Soviet suppression of the 1956 Hungarian Uprising, Lajtha’s last two symphonies are deeply emotional and dramatic works ranging from tragic intensity to optimism. Whereas the Eighth Symphony was aptly described by the composer’s wife as ‘a tragedy without consolation’, the emotional power and the melodic beauty of the Ninth Symphony evoke suffering, happiness and hope. A huge success at its 1963 Parisian premiere, the work was acclaimed by the critic Claude Rostand as ‘the one that convinced us that László Lajtha was truly one of the greatest symphonic composers of the 20th century.
WEINER: WEINER: SERENADE / TWO DIVERTIMENTOS, Estonian National Symphony Orchestra | Neeme Järvi/Chandos CHAN 10959 It appears that — after a fashion — Weiner’s time is coming. Neeme Järvi and his Estonian National Symphony Orchestra reveal here the delightful, witty Hungarian style of Leó Weiner by encapsulating the freshness and fluidity of engaging, yet too rarely performed Serenade and five Divertimentos.