Leonard Bernstein, John Williams and a rediscovered female composer

BERNSTEIN: WONDERFUL TOWN, Soloists, London Symphony Orchestra, Simon Rattle/LSO LIVE SACD LSO 9813  Those lucky enough to have seen Rattle’s wonderful Glyndebourne performances of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess will know just how much the conductor has the measure of music closer to the popular idiom than the concert hall – and they will not be surprised that this performance of Bernstein’s early theatrical masterpiece is so winning (in this year of what would have been his hundredth birthday). The performance has exactly the right infusion of theatrical vividness, and if the whole enterprise doesn’t quite match the pizazz and snap of the earlier John Owen Edwards set, it’s still a real winner. What’s more, the disc sounds particularly impressive in the warm LSO Live surround sound.

JOHN WILLIAMS AT THE MOVIES, Dallas Winds, Jerry Junkin REFERENCE RR-142 SACD  Like the venerable composers who inspired him (such as Eric Wolfgang Korngold and Bernard Herrmann, who straddled the worlds of Hollywood and the concert hall), John Williams’ writing for strings is one of the glories of his matchless film music — which is what makes this lively and attractive set such a surprise, given that the transcriptions here are for woodwind and brass (plus a few other instruments). But how well they work — particularly in the superbly engineered Reference Recordings sound. If you need persuading, just listen to a few bars of Jerry Jenkins and the Dallas Winds’ take on the glorious Superman March or the inevitable extracts from Star Wars. Even if you have the original soundtracks, you may well find yourself being tempted by this delicious disc (see also Graham Williams’ review opposite).

RUTH GIPPS: SYMPHONY NO. 2 IN B MAJOR; SYMPHONY NO. 4; SONG FOR ORCHESTRA; KNIGHT IN ARMOUR, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Rumon Gamba/Chandos CHAN 20078  It is perhaps time that we accept the new orthodoxy that women composers deserve as much attention as men, even though it is undeniably true that (for whatever reasons) music by male composers of real accomplishment is far more plentiful than that written that by the female sex. Which is not to say that the neglect of such composers as the very talented Ruth Gipps – a pupil of Vaughan Williams – is justified. This admirable collection is proof of her accomplishment and a reminder that (like her male contemporaries such as Malcolm Arnold) her highly approachable tonal music fell out of favour when 12 tone and atonal music became the fashionable norm, obliterating more traditional fare. History has now made a sensible judgement, and the work of such neglected composers as Gipps is being (thankfully) dusted off. Great work by Rumon Gamba and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, who have already championed many British composers from the twentieth century with their series devoted to British Tone Poems and Overtures from the British Isles. While, not surprisingly, there are echoes of the most popular composers of the time – Sibelius, Walton, and Vaughan Williams – the music is notable for its personal voice, confident conception, and vivid writing for the orchestra. Gipps herself actually felt her best works were those for orchestra. In a programme of contrasting impressions and emotions, Symphonies Nos 2 and 4, the former inspired by the Second World War, offer an approachable tuneful idiom. They are complemented by the lyrical, shorter Song for Orchestra and the early tone poem Knight in Armour, premiered at the last Night of the Proms in 1942.

Classical CD Choice Disc of the Month: PISTON; JONES; ALBERT: AMERICAN SYMPHONIES – WALTER PISTON: SYMPHONY NO. 6; SAMUEL JONES: SYMPHONY NO. 3 (PALO DURO CANYON); STEPHEN ALBERT: SYMPHONY NO. 2, London Symphony Orchestra; Lance Friedel / BIS2118 SACD  Those with adventurous tastes in American music will have moved on from the more familiar scores of such composers as Copland to sample less traversed territory, such as the often abrasive — but immensely rewarding — music of William Schuman. Another American composition well worth exploring is Walter Piston’s Sixth Symphony, the most familiar piece on this enterprising and very attractive disc. It’s given a very persuasive performance in typically impressive BIS surround sound, but what makes the disc eminently collectable are the two unfamiliar pieces that accompany it – music with which most listeners will be totally unfamiliar On this recording, conductor Lance Friedel strikes a blow for three fellow American composers, with the help of the eminent London Symphony Orchestra. The disc opens with Piston’s 6th. It was completed in 1955, by which time many regarded Piston (1894-1976) as clinging to tradition in the face of modernism. When Samuel Jones (b. 1935) presented his Third Symphony ‘Palo Duro Canyon’ in 1992, the pendulum was swinging back, however, and traditional music built of melody, harmony and rhythm was no longer considered hopelessly outdated. The work nevertheless begins in a rather non-traditional fashion with the recorded sound of the wind of the Texas plains, where the Palo Duro Canyon is situated. Jones’s slightly younger colleague Stephen Albert (1941-92) was just completing his Second Symphony when he was killed in a car accident. The work had been commissioned by the New York Philharmonic.

STRAVINSKY: PERSÉPHONE, Soloists, Finnish National Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonon/PENTATONE SACD PTC 5186688  It’s hardly surprising that Stravinsky’s rigorous, tightly organised piece has had relatively few recordings and performances over the years. Perséphone was written in a period when the composer had long since ceased striving for something between his abrasive and ingratiating manner (the presence of a narrator is clear sign of this rarefied approach). But admirers of Stravinsky looking for a definitive recording of this opaque piece have now been provided with the perfect disc, recorded in PENTATONE’s customarily exemplary surround sound.

KABALEVKSY: OVERTURE PATHÉTIQUE; VIOLIN CONCERTO; 5 RHAPSODY ON THE THEME OF THE SONG ‘SCHOOL YEARS’, VESNA (‘SPRING’); COLAS BREUGNON Suite, Yury Revich; Magda Amara; Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz; Karl-Heinz Steffens  His unfortunate collusion with the Soviet authorities rendered Kabalevsky a notably unheroic figure in music history, it is somewhat unfair that he has had his reputation so tarnished – after all, Shostakovich was similarly obliged to toe the line with the philistine Soviet authorities, but we are prepared to cut the latter more slack as we know his true feelings. The only thing that counts these days is how Kabalevsky’s music sounds, and he remains a composer of accomplishment, with several colourful, accessible pieces to his name. Certainly, he is not a composer to rival Shostakovich, but there are rewards to be found here — not least in the suite from his well known piece Colas Breugnon. Approach this with the correct expectations, and you will be guaranteed a pleasurable listening experience.

STENHAMMAR: SYMPHONY NO. 2; MUSIC TO ‘ETT DRÖMSPEL’, Antwerp Symphony Orchestra, Christian Lindberg/ BIS2329 SACD   Those with a taste for Scandinavian music will of course be familiar with the symphonic masterpieces of Sibelius and Nielsen, but Stenhammar is a composer you may find this well worth your time. The Second Symphony has a particularly stellar reputation, and this immensely musical performance does it full justice. Considered to be one of the great Nordic symphonies of its time, Wilhelm Stenhammar’s Symphony No. 2 in G minor was a long time in the making. Stenhammar the conductor and pianist was a leading figure in the musical life of Sweden and Scandinavia, but in his role as composer he struggled with self-doubt, feeling that his knowledge of musical theory was insufficient. In 1910 he decided to address this perceived shortcoming, and began an intensive study of counterpoint which included setting himself several thousand assignments over the following decade. At the same time, between 1911 and 1915, Stenhammar composed his G minor symphony, and against this background it is hardly surprising that it displays his preoccupation with counterpoint, its final movement a grandiose double fugue. If the symphony is one of Stenhammar’s most celebrated works, his music for Strindberg’s A Dream Play is one of the least-known. It was composed for a production of Strindberg’s existential drama in 1916, a year after the completion of the symphony.

COME TO ME IN MY DREAMS: Dame Sarah Connolly / Joseph Middleton/Chandos CHAN 10944  Singing of mellifluous beauty (with sensitive interpretations of the texts) is the hallmark of this very attractive collection. The disc is also a reminder of Sarah Connolly’s finely honed talent and the often neglected accomplishment of English song over many years. An exceptional, nocturnally inspired recital spanning over 120 years of British song, the CD includes world premieres of two songs by Benjamin Britten.

ROBERT GROSLOT: CONCERTO FOR ORCHESTRA, VIOLIN CONCERTO, Joanna Kurkowicz, Violin, Brussels Philharmonic, Robert Groslot/Naxos  One cannot praise too highly the very welcome enterprise of the Naxos label which is always ready to record and promote composers with whom the listener is unlikely to be familiar. And that enterprise sometimes throws up some real gems – very much the case here. Robert Groslot turns out to be a real find, writing music that is both ambitious and relatively easy on the ear. The Concerto for Orchestra while not rivalling such masterpieces of that idiom as Bartok’s is a wonderfully inventive and vividly coloured piece. The concerto occupies a central place in the works of leading Belgian composer, pianist and conductor, Robert Groslot. His experience as a renowned soloist informs the instrumental possibilities and playing techniques of his compositions, which are notable for their refined and rich contrast. Conforming to his preference for one-movement structures, the Violin Concerto is laced with scintillating motifs both ethereal and playful as well as complex moods ranging from the dream-like and magical to the dark and violent. The Concerto for Orchestra is a meticulously structured and dazzlingly evocative showpiece.

BEETHOVEN: VIOLIN SONATAS 1, 10 & 5, ‘SPRING’, Lorenzo Gatto, Juline Libeer/Alpha 407  Over the years, there have been many exemplary recordings of Beethoven’s masterpieces for violin and piano, but this is a particularly competitive issue, with performances delivered with impeccable musicianship and feeling. If the great recordings of the past are not displaced, this represents a very recommendable modern day alternative.

BRAUNFELLS: WORKS FOR PIANO & ORCHESTRA, Tatjana Blome, Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz, Gregor Bühl/ Capriccio C5345  It’s not so long ago that the music of Braunfells was languishing unheard, but a variety of labels have dusted off some of this most attractive music and committed it to disc – as in this case. Walter Braunfels’ music fell out of favour twice: first, when the Nazis declared his music ‘degenerate art’; and again when post-war Germany declared it had little use for the various schools of tonal music and considered any form of romantic music (almost the whole pre-war aesthetic) to be tainted. Post-war European music faced a fundamental shift in direction. This is Vol. 6 of Capriccio’s Braunfels Edition, devoted to reviving the composer’s rich legacy and showcasing the colourful range of his music. The programme features works for piano and orchestra from three different periods of his life: his first complete orchestral work, Witches’ Sabbath, Op. 8 (1906), the Concert Piece, Op. 64 (1946) and one of his last compositions.

MOZART: STRING QUARTES KV 387 & 421 Aryn Quarte /Tacet SACD S233  The Tacet label is celebrated for its nonpareil sound quality: surround sound recordings with a vividness and immediacy that puts many of their rivals (even several in the SACD field) to shame. Of course, aural virtues such as this would count for little if the performances were not of equal standard, and that is thankfully the case with virtually all of the company’s output. The Aryn Quartet deliver sensitive and musicianly Mozart performances giving these quartets a vibrancy and piquancy of real distinction.

STRAUSS: BURLESKE, OBE CONCERTO, DUET CONCERTINO, TILL EULENSPIEGEL, RIA Symphonie Rochester, Ferce Fricsay/Audite 95604 Listeners old enough to have grown up with the classic recordings of Ferenc Fricsay as an introduction to great music will find this judicious selection of pieces by Richard Strauss a nostalgic treat. But it is more than that. Although inevitably the age of the recordings accords everything a somewhat constricted aural picture, the performances blaze out with conviction and remind us what a great interpreter of Strauss Fricsay was.

BLACHER: DANCE SUITE; HAMLET; POÈME; CONCERTANT MUSIC, Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin; Johannes Kalitzke/Capriccio C5349  Another composer who has hardly deserved the minimal attention his music has received is Boris Blacher, and this intriguing programme is a reminder of his considerable accomplishment, ably conducted by Johannes Klitzke. Blacher passed on the hallmarks of his own music to many of his students, including Gottfried von Einem, Aribert Reimann and Isang Yun: a pronounced dance-like energy, lyrical melodies, orchestral sparkle, and subtlety of instrumentation. Blacher wrote a large number of ballets, and Poème clearly exemplifies how the idea of movement plays a central role even in his absolute music. Faced with the Nazi cultural restrictions of his time, it’s surprising how Blacher continued to tread his own musical path in major works, a beneficiary perhaps of a lack of total unity among the authority’s ranks.

MEPHITOPHELES: AND OTHER BAD GUYS, Kevin Short, Orchestre Philharmonique de Marseille, Lawrence Foster/PENTATONE PTC5186586  With arias by Beethoven Wagner, Mozart, Berlioz and Stravinsky, this was a particularly ingenious idea — marshalling a program featuring the great villains of music in toothsome extracts. Of course, such a disc stands or falls on the skills of its singer, and the talented Kevin Short proves to be a truly impressive performer in these arias. Never laying on the lipsmacking villainy with a trowel, his approach is always utterly musicianly but providing all the necessary dramatic grace notes that are required. It’s an inspired collection.

SIR RICHARD RODNEY BENNETT: ORCHESTRAL WORKS, VOL. 2, Howard McGill / BBC SSO / John Wilson/Chandos SUPER AUDIO CD CHSA 5212  Given that his massively popular film music (such as his winning themes for the original Murder on the Orient Express) has such a following, it’s surprising that Richard Rodney Bennett’s classical output has not enjoyed wider exposure – although it has to be admitted that some pieces such as his opera The Mines of Sulphur are difficult, forbidding work which might explain their relative neglect. This ongoing John Wilson series may bring more attention to the late composer, who was also a specialist in musical theatre (this writer frequently discussed the latter field with Bennett). From the glittering Symphony No. 2 to the jazzy Concerto for Stan Getz, this second volume in John Wilson and the BBC SSO’s invigorating exploration of fascinating orchestral works by Sir Richard Rodney Bennett breaks down the false walls between two musical worlds and will appeal to anyone willing to explore, discover, or simply enjoy great music.

SONGS FOR STRINGS, Donald Fraser, arr./Avie AV 2391  If you are an aficionado of music arranged for string orchestra that was originally written for other forces, Donald Fraser is clearly a musician worth your attention. If this collection of short pieces does not equal in ambition his earlier orchestration of Elgar’s piano quintet, it is nevertheless extremely attractive (if hardly epic in scope) On Songs for Strings, Donald Fraser demonstrates his flair for the art of arranging, crafting beautiful new versions for string orchestra of classic works by John Dowland, Edward Elgar, Henry Purcell, Antonio Vivaldi and others. In the 1990s, Fraser scored a hit with his orchestral arrangement of Marin Marais’ baroque classic The Bells of St. Genevieve which reached the Top 5 of Billboard’s Classical Chart and remains a radio evergreen to this day. Numerous commissions for arrangements followed for musicians such as The King’s Singers, Yehudi Menuhin and the English Chamber Orchestra. In 2016, AVIE released Fraser’s large-scale orchestration of Edward Elgar’s Piano Quintet and choral version of Sea Pictures, which charted in the Top 10 of the UK Specialist Classical Chart. Fraser now returns to the art of arranging smaller scale, classic works by John Dowland, Henry Purcell, Antonio Vivaldi and others, including new versions of his own “Amen” from A Christmas Symphony which was written for and premiered by soprano Jessye Norman, a new re-mix of The Bells of St. Genevieve and orchestrations of four Elgar art songs that evoke the album’s title, Songs for Strings.

GOLDSCHMIDT: OVERTURE: THE COMEDY OF ERRORS; GREEK SUITE; SCHULHOFF: OGELALA, BEATE BILANDZIJA, Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz, Michail Jurowski CPO 999323-2  Perhaps there are no neglected masterpieces in this program, but it is nevertheless a reminder of how solidly written, highly accomplished music and composers suffered under totalitarian regimes. Berthold Goldschmidt and Erwin Schulhoff were two German composers whose fate illustrates with horrible clarity the extent to which Nazi rule impacted artist’s lives during an entire generation. Goldschmidt, who emigrated from Germany to England in 1935, fortunately survived and enjoyed success until his death in 1996. Erwin Schulhoff died in the Würzburg Concentration Camp in 1942. If Goldschmidt’s Comedy of Errors Overture may be termed a carefree and youthful stroke of genius, then his Greek Suite is a gloomy document of the time it was written in. The melodies derived by Goldschmidt from the thirty Mélodies populaires de Grèce at the time might have symbolized Greek as well as English opposition to the Axis powers. Schulhoff’s ballet mystery based on Ogelala, an ancient Mexican original, dates from the same period as Goldschmidt’s genial comic overture. A score displaying more magnificent colours could simply not be imagined. These works, in this combination, clearly demonstrate the great richness of Germany’s music during the 1920s.

JOUBERT: PIANO CONCERTO; SYMPHONY NO. 3, Martin Jones, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, William Boughton/Lyrita SRCD367  Those who have have discovered the music of Joubert have been well aware that he is a composer real accomplishment with the body of work that deserves far wider explosion exposure – perhaps discs like this will help spread the word. In keeping with Joubert’s instinctively symphonic approach to large-scale forms, the concerto is more of a sinfonia concertante than a bravura vehicle for pianistic display. The idea for a musico-dramatic work based on Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre originated in the early 1980s, when the composer took early retirement from the University of Birmingham. This was a labour of love which he embarked upon unprompted and without the security of a commission. Dedicated to the opera’s librettist Kenneth Birkin and his wife Inge, Symphony No.3 on themes from the opera ‘Jane Eyre’, Op.178 (2014-17), reworks the five orchestral interludes as five symphonic movements. Originally written for chamber orchestral forces, the material has been re-scored by the composer for a full symphony orchestra.