A Bernstein Box and Other Delights

LEONARD BERNSTEIN: THE COMPLETE NAXOS RECORDINGS, Various soloists and orchestras, Marin Alsop/Naxos 8 CDs & 1 DVD, 8.508018  Marin Alsop would no doubt be among the first to admit that Leonard Bernstein’s own performances of his work remain the gold standard, but this talented protégée of the late composer and conductor has made the greatest contribution to the enshrinement of his legacy, particularly with this remarkable Naxos set, which contains virtually all of Bernstein’s celebrated legacy as a classical composer. And performed in readings of great style and panache – not to mention recorded with the greatest possible fidelity short of the surround sound medium. And what is particularly cherishable are not just the recordings of the major pieces, but the many unusual works (and several premiers); musts for completists. This celebration of Bernstein’s centenary brings together all of the acclaimed Naxos recordings of his music conducted by Alsop, as well as an insightful documentary DVD – no hagiography, thankfully — in which colleagues and family sum up this boundlessly brilliant and charismatic musical giant of the 20th century. It includes interviews with Bernstein’s children as well as colleagues and artistic collaborators such as Stephen Sondheim, Gustavo Dudamel, Marin Alsop and many others. Marin Alsop’s Naxos recordings of Bernstein’s music have been given great critical acclaim, notably her Chichester Psalms, On the Waterfront and On the Town (and the controversial but always exciting Mass). Two new CDs from Alsop with the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra contain world premiere recordings of the striking CBS Music, the Birthday Bouquet which comprises eight variations on ‘New York, New York’ from On the Town, and orchestrations of eleven of the Anniversaries.

WIRÉN: ORCHESTRAL WORKS, Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Rumon Gamba/Chandos SACD CHSA 5194  Many composers are remembered for a single piece — whatever the virtues of their other compositions (Albinoni for his Adagio, for instance), and there is no question that Dag Wirén is best known for his charming Serenade for Strings. But those who have not encountered his striking symphonies – works of considerable merit and of a larger range of ambition – are doing themselves a disservice. This new recording of Wirén’s engaging third Symphony will hopefully win the composer many new friends – and persuade listeners that there is far more to him than that signature piece. The composer’s Scandinavian musical ethos is writ large, but the music is more accessible than many of Wirén’s contemporaries. These lively works by the Swedish composer are here brought together in a unique, powerful surround-sound recording by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and Rumon Gamba.

KORNGOLD: VIOLIN CONCERTO BERNSTEIN: SERENADE, Liza Ferschtman, Prague Symphony Orchestra, Malat & Vasquez/Challenge SACD CC7265  While several recording companies have, sadly, relinquished their commitment to the SACD surround sound medium, Challenge Classics are to be applauded for continuing to support the matchless sound recording technology which does more service to recorded music than any other available system. And despite the fact that DG (with Mutter) recorded in surround sound the Korngold concerto to be found on this SACD, that DG disc is now difficult to find and expensive, which makes this winning new reading by Liza Ferschtman particularly cherishable, not least because the coupling — Bernstein’s ambitious Serenade — makes for a very attractive issue. Ferschtman has the absolute measure of the piece, combining its classical virtues with the elements drawn from the emigré composer’s Hollywood background (the latter, of course, was the very thing that held back appreciation of Korngold for many years). The definitive reading may remain that of the violinist the piece was written for, Jascha Heifitz, but the sound of that classic reading cannot match the wonderfully nuanced recording here, and the new performance – in terms of poetry and feeling — is all that one could wish for.

BRAHMS VARIATIONS FOR ORGAN, Christoph Schoener, Organ of Michaelis Church Hamburg/MDG SACD 949 2051-6 Inevitably, something is lost in these transcriptions for organ by various hands of such pieces as Brahms’ Handel Variations, but it might be argued that much is gained also — and organ enthusiasts will find this an extremely pleasurable set of performances. The sound of the organ of Michaelis Church Hamburg is magnificent throughout.

MOZART: VIOLIN CONCERTOS 4 & 5, Nicolai Znaider, violin and conductor, London Symphony Orchestra/LSO 0807 SACD  The notion of the soloist as conductor was a common one in Mozart’s day, but is less frequent today. Nicolai Znaider proves adept at this complex task, and these performances of Mozart’s fourth and fifth violin concertos are highly competitive, even in a crowded field; the string playing of the LSO has notable precision and attack.

BRAHMS: THE THREE VIOLIN SONATAS, Tasmin Little, violin, Piers Lane, piano/ CHANDOS 10977  There are many listeners who consider themselves Brahmsians, yet who resist the lure of the three violin sonatas. Here, however, is a recording that will convert the unconverted, in which Tasmin Little and Piers Lane bring their considerable musical acumen to work on these three remarkable pieces. Little’s very busy schedule for the Chandos label is producing a golden age of violin recordings with a level of consistency that remains non-paeil — and this latest Brahms disc is well within the honourable tradition she has established. Those unfamiliar with the three sonatas may find this the perfect entrée to the musical world the sonatas inhabit. The leading British duo in romantic repertoire climbs three summits in the violin sonata genre, exploring the radiant effusiveness and tender lyricism at the heart of Brahms.

BACH: SUITES: BWV 1007-1012: the Cello suites arranged for saxophone/Raaf Hekkema Challenge SACD CC 72769 Is there a composer who has enjoyed (if that is the word) more transcriptions for other media than Johann Sebastian Bach? The transcriptions of his organ works are, of course, legion, with heavyweight composers such as Respighi and Elgar making impressive orchestral versions of music written for the organ. But here is something different – the cello suites arranged for saxophone — and, what’s more, performed on historic saxophones with the instruments matched to individual works. The result – which, while it certainly won’t be to every taste – is very persuasive, and what is remarkable is how well the reed sound of the instrument matches the very sympathetic transcriptions. Inevitably, the pieces are best listened to in smaller measures than en masse (thus avoiding aural fatigue), but this is still a brave experiment which (largely speaking) is a success.

RESPIGHI: Vetrate di chiesa; Il tramonto; Trittico botticelliano Anna Caterina Antonacci, Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège, John Neschling BIS2250  Of recent recordings of the music of Respighi in surround sound, the BIS series by John Neschling has been one of the most conspicuously successful, with the composer demonstrating a commitment to the dramatic, richly coloured music of the Italian composer that few have matched over the years. This particular disc is one of the triumphs of an already considerable series with Church Windows In particular being as vivid a reading as this glorious piece has received – enhanced, what’s more, by the remarkably faithful and impactful SACD sound. The reminder of the program is similarly treated with great sympathy and understanding, and this is a quite remarkable disc. Scored for small orchestra, Respighi’s Botticellian Triptych has all the freshness of the famous paintings of the Renaissance master. Subtitled ‘poemetto lirico’ Il tramonto was originally composed for voice and string quartet, but is often performed with a larger complement of strings, as here. SopranoAnna Caterina Antonacci breathes impassioned life into Shelley’s Romantic poem The Sunset (translated into Italian) in which love is brutally cut short by death. The disc closes with the four Church Windows. (SEE ALSO GRAHAM WILLIAMS REVIEW OPPOSITE)

Lutosławski: Vocal and Orchestral Works, Soloists / BBC Symphony Orchestra / Edward Gardner/Chandos SACD CHSA 5223(5)  If you have not been collecting the ongoing Chandos series of Lutosławski recordings individually, here is a chance at bargain price to remedy that omission. One wonders how many listeners are able to appreciate the very approachable Bartokian Concerto for Orchestra alongside the much more rebarbative later works, but even if you choose just to pick and mix from the selections on offer here, this is still a very intriguing set. The complete five-volume Chandos series, all discs now in surround-sound, featuring a string of the composer’s masterpieces performed by some of Chandos’ finest artists

RACHMANINOV, PROKOFIEV 2ND PIANO CONCERTOS, Denis Matsuev, Mariinsky Orchestra, Valery Gergiev/Mariinsky MAR0599-D  It goes without saying the Gergiev has the measure of most of the classics of the Russian repertoire, and so it proves once again here, even if there is something of a rough-edged quality to these otherwise characterful readings. The technical challenges of the pieces hold no terrors for Dennis Matsuev.

DEBUSSY: Songs, Volume 4 Lucy Crowe, Christopher Maltman, Malcolm Martineau, Jennifer France, Lucy Wakeford/ HYPERION CDA68075  Over the years there have been many recordings of Debussy’s beautiful works for the voice, but this one is something special. A recital of songs spanning Debussy’s entire compositional career, from ‘Tragédie’ written in early 1881, to his very last song, ‘Noël des enfants qui n’ont plus de maisons’ from the end of 1915. A strong finis to this series with Lucy Crowe and Malcolm Martineau.

MAHLER SYMPHONY NO. 4, ETC., Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg, Gustavo Gimeno/PENTATONE SACD PTC 186651  While not perhaps in the front rank of recordings of this much-loved Mahler Symphony, this is a highly capable performance, finding a great deal of the rumbustious charm of the piece, notably in the exquisite vocal final movement with Miah Persson. There is also a particular attractive bonus in Colin Matthews’ clever orchestration of Mahler’s fragment of a Piano Quartet.

BEETHOVEN: PIANO TRIOS, Van Baerle Trio/Challenge SACD 72765  While many listeners have been long committed to the chamber music of Beethoven, there are many listeners stash even those who consider themselves Beethoven aficionados who have yet to learn to love the piano trios, apart, perhaps, from the Ghost and Archduke. This new cycle by the Van Baerle Trio in surround sound is the perfect way to make the acquaintance of this music.

DVOŘÁK: American Quartet, TCHAIKOVSKY: Quartet No. 1, BORODIN: Quartet No. 2 Escher String Quartet/SACD BIS2280  While orchestral music is perhaps the best test of the extra levels of dynamics that surround sound may grant recorded music,, recordings of chamber music – when played as idiomatically as here – are equal advertisements for the medium. The Escher String Quartet’s recording of Mendelssohn’s first and fourth quartets were much acclaimed, and after completing the three-disc Mendelssohn cycle – and earning further accolades – the quartet now returns with a programme that couples three much loved quartets played with more forcefulness than is customary, but not sacrificing the necessary poetic qualities.

BRAHMS: THE SYMPHONIES, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Robin Ticciati/Linn CKD 601  Slowly but surely, Robin Ticciatii has been building an impressive discography with his impressive series of recordings; this Brahms cycle is a worthy successor to his earlier much-acclaimed readings of the symphonies of Schumann. The listener’s only regret might be that that Linn label has abandoned the superb SACD recordings that distinguished earlier performances. Nevertheless, the sound is still highly impressive, the performces top-drawer.

LES BOYS: POULENC, TROTIGNON, BRUBECK, Duo Jatekok/Alpha 388  In the same fashion that the pianist Paul Wittgenstein commissioned several piano concerti for the left-hand alone, the piano duo of Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale performed a similar service by commissioning pieces for two pianos from such composers as Barber and John Cage. Known as ‘The Boys’ they were celebrated throughout the world, and this equally impressive young piano duo has recorded a lively tribute to them with an extremely eclectic repertoire

HINDEMITH: SYMPHONIC METAMORPHOSIS, NOBILISSMA VISONE. Boston Symphony, Marek Janowski/ PENTATONE PTC 186672  For many years, there was a marked resistance to the music of Hindemith, and it was frequently described it as dry and academic. And while there is some justification for that judgement about certain pieces, a disc such as this shows how wide of the mark that claim usually is – this is music of considerable attractiveness and brio when played as well as it is here. Paul Hindemith belongs to the most original and interesting composers of the twentieth century. Once described by the Boston Globe as a “20th-century Brahms”, Hindemith wrote music that is Modernist in its rhythmic audacity and colourful orchestration, but simultaneously inspired by Classical forms and styles. The WDR Symphony Orchestra and conductor Marek Janowski provide a fascinating interpretation of three orchestral works that display an irrepressible, almost wild passion for music-making that is omnipresent throughout Hindemith’s oeuvre.

DEBUSSY: LA MER, RAVEL: MA MERE L’OYE, Het Gelders Orkest, Antonello Manacorda/Challenge SACD CC72757  These days, it is a brave conductor who tackles this very familiar repertoire, so plentiful are the various recordings of these beloved pieces. What’s more, there are so many readings which are in the non-pareil category, and a merely efficient reading will not do the trick. Fortunately, the Het Gelders Orkest under the direction of Antonello Manacorda have scrupulously addressed the scores anew and bring to them the kind of attention to detail and colour that distinguishes the best performances. In either case here, the great performances of the past are not superceded, but these readings – particularly in the highly impressive Challenge Classics — sound do full justice to these scores.

BRAHMS: SYMPHONY NO. 2 IN D MAJOR, OP. 73; HAYDN VARIATIONS; ACADEMIC FESTIVAL OVERTURE, OP. 80; HUNGARIAN DANCES NOS 6, 7 & 5 (orch. by Thomas Dausgaard) Swedish Chamber Orchestra, Thomas Dausgaard  BIS2253  The days when Brahms scores such as these were played in a heavy, listless fashion are thankfully in the past, but many would argue that the full resources of the symphony orchestra are required to bring out all levels of dynamism in these great Brahms scores. What we get here of course is the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, but what they lack in sheer weight of sound, they bring in concision of attack, and no one can argue that the exemplary performances here lacked weight. On a number of previous recordings the 40-odd members of the Swedish Chamber Orchestra and Thomas Dausgaard have shed a new light on the Romantic symphonic repertoire, with performances described as ‘tight’, ‘invigorating’, ‘transparent’ and ‘thrilling’.

NICO MUHLY & ANTONY PITTS: MASSES AND OTHER CHORAL MUSIC BY VERDI, CLEMENS NON PAPA, MOUTON, ESENVALDS & POULENC, Capella Pratensis & Netherlands Chamber Orchestra etc. conducted by Stephen Layton/Challenge Classics SACD 72711  The choral precision on this unorthodox collection is of the first order; admirers of choral works may wish to try these intriguing scores by Myhly and Pitts as well as the more familiar names.

THE SECRET MASS: CHORAL WORKS BY FRANK MARTIN & BOHUSLAV MARTINŮ, Danish National Vocal Ensemble, Marcus Creed  The works on this highly unusual disc — Frank Martin: Mass for two Four-part Choirs; Bohuslav Martinů: Four Songs of the Virgin Mary; Frank Martin: Songs of Ariel; Bohuslav Martinů: Romance from the Dandelions — are granted the best possible advocacy, offering a reminder (if such a thing were needed) that 20th-century music of this ilk can be quite as immediately appealing as that of earlier eras. The pieces here by Frank Martin are perhaps more forbidding, but are given readings of such strength that there is an instant communication with the adventurous listener. The Grammy-Nominated, ECHO Award-winning Danish National Vocal Ensemble under the direction of Marcus Creed have a particualr affinity for the music of Martinů with its traces of impressionism and Stravinskian neoclassicism along with the love of folklore he shared with his countryman, Leoš Janáček.