Colourful Classics from EMI, Naxos and Chandos

CASELLA: ORCHESTRAL WORKS: SUITE, PAGINO DI GUERRA (WAR PAGES), CONCERTO FOR ORCHESTRA, Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma, Francesco La Vecchia, NAXOS  It’s hard to know what is a greater cause for wonder: the fact that the colourful and attractive music of Italian composer Alfredo Casella has been neglected for so long (when music of far less distinction has achieved some measure of success), or the fact that two CD companies are undertaking simultaneous – and very welcome – recording projects which (between them) are plugging most of the gaps in the Casella discography. This latest outing from Naxos is particularly winning, featuring as it does two real discoveries: the impressively inventive Suite and the equally striking Pagino di Guerra/War Pages, which begins with an interlude of primitive barbarism. All are played with great panache by the Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma, and these two works are premiere recordings. With the last work on the disc, the Concerto for Orchestra, the Naxos series comes into direct competition with Chandos, who are doing similar service. If that company’s performance of the latter work has the edge in sheer virtuosity, the new Naxos disc remains an essential purchase for Casselians, not least for its two ear-catching premieres.

MONTSALVATGE: ORCHESTRAL WORKS: PARTITA 1958; SIMFONIA DE RÈQUIEM; CINCO CANCIONES NEGRAS; etc., Ruby Hughes (soprano), Clara Mouriz (mezzo soprano), BBC Philharmonic, Juanjo Mena, CHANDOS  If a society existed for the excavation of highly worthwhile composers who have fallen from favour, all subscriptions to such an organisation should be paid into the coffers of the company Chandos, who far outstrip any rivals in bringing such works to works to light. This immensely appealing Spanish music is in accessible 20th century manner, and one hopes it will not be the last time that the company sips from the Montsalvatge well. This CD marks the centenary in 2012 of the birth of the Catalan composer Xavier Montsalvatge, and is issued as part of the Chandos Spanish Music series. The conductor is Juanjo Mena, a fellow Catalan national and Chief Conductor of the BBC Philharmonic. Montsalvatge tackled a variety of musical idioms, and the vocal Cinco Canciones Negras (Five Negro Songs), is something of a calling card piece, with several singers taking up the work.

TCHAIKOVSKY: SYMPHONY NO.1, SNOW MAIDEN (EXCERPTS) Gürzenich-Orchester Köln, cond. Kitajenko, Oehms SACD  We are becoming almost spoiled for choice in the surround sound medium, with highly competitive sets of the Tchaikovsky symphonies appearing with satisfying regularity. This is a particularly striking version of one of Tchaikovsky’s most elusive symphonies, and it is interesting to note how the conductor utilises an absolutely apposite approach for the melodic world of Tchaikovsky’s music with quite as much understanding as he demonstrated with the very different sound world of Shostakovich in his nigh-definitive set of that composer’s masterworks. A suite of music from Tchaikovsky’s opera The Snowmaiden makes a welcome fill-up. The Gürzenich-Orchester Köln maintains the high standard of their Tchaikovsky series with this charming (if under-performed) symphony.

BIZET: CARMEN Magdalena Kozena, Berliner Philharmoniker, Simon Rattle, EMI  It almost goes without saying that Simon Rattle’s approach to the most popular of all operas (and the most perfect, according to Nietzsche) is different in focus from any the piece has received previously, and the innovative aspect here consists of a forensic concentration on Bizet’s exquisite orchestration, which has rarely been heard to such advantage. If the singing on the set has proved to be more controversial (notably Magdalena Kozena’s Carmen), it is more than serviceable, and this is an extremely attractive approach to an operatic war-horse.

AMERICAN SERENADE: BIZET, BERNSTEIN, WAXMAN Rachel Kolly d’Alba, violin, Orchestre Nationale des Pays de la Loire, John Axelrerod, Warner Classics  Three winning and attractive pieces (two of them transcriptions) which make a lively and undemading programme. Some may be given pause by the surprising number of photographs of the violinist herself, but that’s no doubt an imperative of the art of selling classical music today.

DEBUSSY PRELUDES (ORCH. PETER BREINER) Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Jun Markl, Naxos  Most classical music aficionados like to complete their collections with the major works by favourite composers, but there is a new syndrome at work – one connected to the orchestrator (and composer) Peter Breiner. So splendid is his work rendering orchestral suites from a variety of sources (most recently for Naxos the operas of Janacek) that he now has a dedicated following, eager to see what orchestral magic he will work on some other favoured piece. This time it is the piano preludes of Claude Debussy. That composer may well have taken a very different approach had he chosen to orchestrate his own pieces, but Breiner’s are a masterclass in orchestration, with a kaleidoscopic range of colour that constantly tickles the year. Real delight.

JOSEF SUK: ORCHESTRAL WORKS: PRAGUE/A SUMMER’S TALE, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Jiří Bělohlávek, CHANDOS SACD  There have been previous recordings of these under-regarded pieces by an under-regarded composer, now (thankfully) coming into his own, but none have found the poetic centre of the music with quite as much insight as Jiří Bělohlávek. What’s more, the recording (in Chandos’s best surround sound manner) is non-pareil. Some may wish the organ in the concluding section of Praga might have been given greater prominence, but there is no denying the overwhelming power of this final section. The two symphonic poems by Suk are delivered with maximum panache by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Jiří Bělohlávek, also responsible for a much-acclaimed recording of Suk’s First Symphony and Ripening.

TCHAIKOVSKY SYMPHONIES 1, 2, 3 Valery Gergiev, London Symphony Orchestra, LSO LIVE SACD  It goes without saying that Valery Gergiev has this music in his blood, and this is a useful (and economical) way to collect the composer’s first three symphonies, particularly in the striking (if dry) LSO Live surround sound accorded the music.

RESPIGHI: VIOLIN PIECES Tanja Becker-Bender, Pete Nagy, Hyperion The most familiar piece here is Respighi’s Violin Sonata of 1917 which has enjoyed many strong and characterful performances — and here is another one to add to that illustrious list. But the coupling this time is unusual, comprising unfamiliar pieces for the same instrumental combination by Respighi. There are no undiscovered masterpieces here, but admirers of the composer will be pleased by what is on offer.

BACH: SIX PARTITAS BWV 825-830 (Part I of the “Clavier Übung) Hansjörg Albrecht, organ, Oehms SACD  Such is the understated skill of these organ transcriptions that just a few bars of the music quickly suggests that this is precisely the way in which these glorious pieces deserve to be heard. The recording accorded this set is almost a justification itself for the SACD medium with even the most subtle of pedal notes captured with maximum fidelity.

SAMUEL BARBER AN AMERICAN ROMANTIC Conspriare, Craig Hella Johnson, Harmonia Mundi It seems strange that the composer Barber, who considered himself neglected in his day (apart from his popular hits such as the Adagio for Strings), but this attractive collection is a reminder of how wide his range was – and how impressive his achievement.

SUPER THEMES: Various orchestras and conductors, Silva Screen  The most popular genre in the cinema today is the superhero movie, but the various caped and masked crimefighters owe much to those composers supplying their wildly exuberant orchestral scores – and several of the best of those are represented here, from John Williams’ swaggering Superman march to Elliott Goldenthal’s menacing and operatic music for The Batman. There are, it has to be said, some less impressive entries from composers of much more modest merit, but this two-disc set deserves the kind of success that these films are enjoying the cinema.