Orchestral Showpieces from BIS, Chandos and Co.

PROKOFIEV: SYMPHONY NO. 6; LIEUTENANT KIJÉ; THE LOVE OF THREE ORANGES; Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Andrew Litton/BIS 1994 SACD  Here’s a question: why haven’t the symphonies of Prokofiev, so crammed full of colour and inventive orchestration, tempted those companies specialising in super audio CDs? This glorious music, which exploits the full dynamic range of the modern symphony orchestra, is an absolute natural for the medium, and its relatively sparse representation has been a cause for regret. But that regret is firmly over, if this first edition in a new cycle is a harbinger of the offerings to come. This immensely persuasive performance of the sinewy 6th Symphony matches impeccable musical values to sound quality of the most dramatic impact; what’s more two of the composer’s most popular orchestral suites, Lieutenant Kijé and The Love of Three Oranges, complement the symphony, making a most generous program. If there is a caveat – and there is one — it is that the alternative version of Lieutenant Kijé has been used, with vocal passages instead of the familiar (and far more seductive) orchestral sections, but this is a small blot on a truly recommendable issue — and one that whets the appetite for further issues in the series by Andrew Litton and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra.

OPERA RECORDING OF THE MONTH; WAGNER: THE RING; Soloists, Bayreuther Festspiele, Daniel Barenboim/Teldec 2564656333 Blu-ray  It’s here at last in a format that does it justice: Daniel Barenboim’s much-acclaimed version of Wagner’s great operatic masterpiece. The Barenboim Ring has long been regarded as the definitive modern version on DVD, crying out for the extra finessing that the Blu-ray medium would offer – which is precisely what it receives here. Some elements of the staging are (of course) controversial, but few would argue that the conductor and his solid cast of singers finds the essence of this most challenging of operas, and it is finally available in a version that does full justice to both musical and dramatic qualities. What is particularly piquant here is the fact that the clarity of sound and image on offer here was always inherent in the material – it simply needed the Blu-ray wash-and-rinse to make these qualities shine.

ATTERBERG: SYMPHONY NO. 6, ‘DOLLAR SYMPHONY’; SYMPHONY NO. 4 ‘SINFONIA PICCOLO; EN VÄRMLANDSRAPSODI SUITE NO. 3; Sara Trobäck Hesselink (violin), Per Högberg (viola), Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, Neeme Järvi/CHANDOS CHSA 5116 SACD  Neeme Järvi further channels his Scandinavian commitment with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra into something cherishable with these polished and idiosyncratic performances of orchestral pieces by one of Sweden’s most unusual composers. The self-taught Atterberg forged a compositional ethos that took Brahmsian motifs and pointed them in new and unorthodox directions. The Symphony No. 4 (1918) was composed in tandem with a piece by with a Swedish colleague, Natanael Berg; both men decided that a bass tuba should be utilised in their pieces. Atterberg’s Sixth Symphony (which in 1928 received a prize from the Columbia Gramophone Company for a piece ‘in the spirit of Schubert,’), is quintessential fare from the composer, and is immensely winning. 

CHAMBER RECORDING OF THE MONTH; BEETHOVEN: STRING QUARTETS OP. 18/3, 18/5 & 135; Hagen Quartett/Myrios MYR009 SACD  Recordings of the Beethoven quartets are legion (with even the SACD medium catching up – see elsewhere in this column), and new entries have to offer something special in order to be competitive in this overcrowded field. If the Hagen Quartet maximise intellectual concentration rather than the gemütlich qualities customarily found in the earlier quartets here, this is a cogent approach that pays dividends and offers a striking new insight into music that will now at times seem strangely unfamiliar to the listener, however well they know the pieces. The recording is splendidly incisive, particularly in the later Opus 135.

BRUCH: SCOTTISH FANTASY, VIOLIN CONCERTO NO.1; Guy Braunstein, Bamberger Symphoniker, Ion Marin/TUDOR 7188 SACD  The Bruch violin concerto has done service in the SACD medium before (and see the contemporaneous Steinbacher recording reviewed here), but this all-Bruch programme makes for a satisfyingly unified listening experience, with the Bruch concerto poetically shaped by the talented Braunstein. Those sensitive to such things should note that the violinist’s sharp intakes of breath at the start of phrases is persistently audible, particularly in this translucent SACD recording.

STRAUSS: DER ROSENKAVALIER (Highlights); Crespin, Söderström, Holecek, Wiener Philharmoniker, Silvio Varviso/Eloquence ELQ 4803149  It is a pity that one of the most acclaimed recordings of Strauss’s beloved Rosenkavalier was only recorded as excerpts, but we do get an hour’s worth, and most listeners’ favourites are here (though not Ochs’ seductive waltz). The scenes include the Marchallin’s Act I monologue, the Presentation of the Rose, and (of course) the trio and final duet. A youthful-sounding Crespin and Söderström produce ravishing interpretations.

LUTOSŁAWSKI: DANCE PRELUDES, SYMPHONY NO. 1, PARTITA, CHAIN 2 Michael Collins (clarinet), Tasmin Little (violin) BBC Symphony Orchestra, Edward Gardner/CHANDOS CHSA 5108 SACD  While more varied (in terms of contrasting the accessible and the rebarbative) than other orchestral surveys of individual composers from Chandos, this fifth and final Lutosławski volume rounds out the series in great style. The composer’s Symphony No. 1 (composed between 1941 and 1947) is a lively and energetic piece in the composer’s most listener-friendly mode. The selections here supply a rounded portrait of the composer – and even if (frankly) some of the modish pieces in this survey may languish unplayed, the wealth of striking and individual music decisively outweighs the more cryptic pieces. The surround sound, as ever with Chandos, is superb.

TALBOT: ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND AND FOOL’S PARADISE; Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Christopher Austin/Signum Classics SIGCD 327  This first CD release of composer Joby Talbot’s collaborations with choreographer Christopher Wheeldon includes the scores Fool’s Paradise (2007); and their subsequent piece, the Carroll-inspired Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (2011). The scores are performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under conductor Christopher Austin, a frequent collaborator of the composer. Following earlier releases on Signum (earlier issues include Path of Miracles and Tide Harmonic), this is music of great liveliness and colour, but perhaps lacking that final soupçon of individuality. Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine in the scores being given greater advocacy than they receive here.

SVENDSEN: ORCHESTRAL WORKS, VOLUME 3: Symphony No. 1; Violin Concerto; Norwegian Artists’ Carnival; Two Icelandic Melodies Marianne Thorsen (violin), Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Neeme Järvi CHAN 10766  Neeme Järvi supplies Vol. 3 in the conductor’s survey of orchestral works by the neglected Norwegian composer Johan Svendsen. As before, no earth shattering discoveries, but easy-on-the-ear, insinuating music.

 BRITTEN: PETER GRIMES; Soloists, Teatro alla Scala Orchestra, Robin Ticciati/OPUS ARTE 0947807119 DVD/Blu-ray  The acclaimed production of Peter Grimes from Teatro alla Scala, directed by Richard Jones. Generally regarded as the greatest of all 20th-century British operas, Britten’s groundbreaking masterpiece is here given a psychologically telling reading with sound and picture quality in the Blu-ray medium that sees off all rivals. This production revived the tradition of Britten’s operas on the lyric stages of Italy and the strong British cast is marshalled by the baton of Robin Ticciati in his La Scala debut. John Graham-Hall gives a superb performance as the eponymous fisherman.

BRUCKNER: MASS NO.3 IN F MINOR; Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Rundfunkchor Berlin/Marek Janowski/Pentatone PTC 5186 501 SACD  The drama and intensity of Bruckner’s mass is here given its full head, and the results are impressive indeed, though the mass remains principally a piece for Brucknerians; the unconverted will not find the scales falling from their eyes. With typically impressive PentaTone surround sound doing full justice to the orchestral panoply (not to mention the forceful choral writing), this is a disc that will please even the most demanding aficionado, complementing the Bruckner Symphonies cycle with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande conducted by Marek Janowski.

GOOSSENS: FOUR CONCEITS, OP. 20; KALEIDOSCOPE, OP. 18; TAM O’SHANTER, OP. 17; VARIATIONS ON ‘CADET ROUSSELLE’; TWO NATURE POEMS, OP. 25; THREE GREEK DANCES, OP. 44; INTERMEZZO FROM ‘DON JUAN DE MAÑARA’, OP. 54; CONCERT PIECE, OP. 65, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Sir Andrew Davis/CHANDOS CHSA 5119 SACD  When ABC Classics issued a comprehensive multidisc set of the orchestral works of Eugene Goosens, it was something of a revelation: here was yet another talented British composer whose work had fallen into inexplicable neglect (although perhaps not so inexplicable; Goossens’ music was colourful and accessible; hardly fashionable accoutrements when he was writing it). That set was ably conducted by the late Vernon Handley, and it’s good to report that his pioneering work is being followed up by Andrew Davis and the Chandos team in the most wide-ranging of super audio surround sound. From the first bars of the lively Kaleidoscope, Goosens’ music is obviously in the best of hands, and the second item here, Tam O’Shanter even gives Malcolm Arnold’s celebrated overture of the same name a run for its money (though Arnold’s is the more individual piece). This disc marks the beginning of the partnership between the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and its recently appointed Chief Conductor, Sir Andrew Davis, who already boasts an impressive discography on Chandos. In the pieces here, Goossens demonstrates his mastery of orchestration notably with Four Conceits, Kaleidoscope, and Two Nature Poems, which were initially pieces for solo piano. Not everything here is substantial, and there is some note-spinning, but the generally inspired fare outweighs the quotidian. Sound values are top-notch.

VAGN HOLMBOE: CONCERTO FOR VIOLA OP. 189; CONCERTO FOR ORCHESTRA; CONCERTO FOR VIOLIN NO. 2 OP. 139; Erik Heide, Lars Anders, Tomter Norrköping Symphony Orchestra, Dima Slobodeniouk DA Capo 6220599 SACD  Recently, more and more listeners have been investigating the music of Holmboe and finding its very individual appeal ever more winning. If the concertos here are clearly not as significant in the composer’s output as his more weighty symphonies, they are nevertheless essential purchases for those who have been collecting the latter, and the sheer musicianship of the soloists here is nonpareil. The concertos for violin and viola are infused with the composer’s flavoursome Nordic style.

 BRUCH/KORNGOLD/CHAUSSON: VIOLIN CONCERTOS; Arabella Steinbacher, Gulbenkian Orchestra, Lawrence Foster/Pentatone PTC 5186 503 SACD  There is some competition regarding both the Bruch and Korngold concertos in the SACD medium these days (see above), but Arabella Steinbacher is able to hold her own with the very best. In the luxuriously romantic Korngold (written for Jascha Heifetz, whose recording remains the template), Steinbacher is set further back in the sound picture than her most persuasive rival, Anne-Sophie Mutter (whose own version is a modern benchmark), but that allows much of Korngold’s exquisitely subtle orchestral detail to be heard as never before. The Bruch is similarly given a very perceptive reading. This is the 4th concerto album of Arabella Steinbacher on PentaTone.

ITALIAN ORCHESTRAL MUSIC; Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecil / Fernando Previtali Eloquence ELQ 4805374 2CD  In some ways, it is a shame that Respighi’s Pines of Rome, dazzlingly performed though is here, has been included as recordings of the piece are numerous (and this decades-old one, truth to tell, shows its age). The real appeal of the disc is the lesser-known music (although Wolf-Ferrari’s Jewels of the Madonna is hardly obscure) but lovers of vibrant (if underregarded) Italian orchestral music should not hesitate, even though the recordings are of vintage status. Fernando Previtali’s orchestral recordings for Decca of music by Respighi, Casella, Ghedini, Petrassi and Casella were recorded in July 1956 and spent only a short time in the catalogue

TCHAIKOVSKY: VIOLIN CONCERTO & SOUVENIR OF FLORENCE; Sarah Nemtanu, Orchestre National de France, Kurt Masur/Naïve 2218605325  A new artist, and the new version of a much-recorded piece, but a recording that — while not rivalling some of the most significant readings of the past — is nevertheless competitive, particularly with the nuance added by the sensitive conducting of Kurt Masur.

D’INDY: ORCHESTRAL WORKS, VOLUME 5: Symphonie sur un chant montagnard français, Op. 25 Saugefleurie, Op. 21; Médée, Op. 47 Prelude to ‘Fervaal’, Op. 40 Louis Lortie (piano), Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Rumon Gamba CHAN 10760  More glowing and sensual sounds in the very welcome D’Indy series from Chandos. If (in the final analysis) the music is not quite as distinctive as much of this era investigated by this most enterprising labels, it is still graced with immense charm – and, what’s more, it is characterised with great charm by Gamba. This is Volume 5 in the Chandos series dedicated to the orchestral works of Vincent d’Indy, and the recording is the first ever made at Harpa, the new concert hall in Reykjavik, which opened in May 2011.

BEETHOVEN: COMPLETE QUARTETS Vol. 1 Quartetto di Cremona Audite 92.680 SACD  More Beethoven quartets in the super audio medium, and once again, an enthusiastic welcome is justified. What is particularly impressive here is the use of all four channels for the individual instruments. Although some listeners find this approach something of a gimmick, there is no denying that the strategy places one ineluctably right at the centre of the music – and, it might be argued, at the crucial centre of Beethoven’s genius, particularly in performances as sensitive and musicianly as those to be found here. An auspicious launch to a complete cycle.