Sonic Splendours from Bartok to Vaughan Williams

CHAN 5130

BARTOK: ORCHESTRAL PIECES, MUSIC FOR STRINGS, PERCUSSION AND CELESTA, SUITE FROM‘THE MIRACULOUS MANDARIN/Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Edward Gardner/CHANDOS CHSA 5130 The first thing to note about these orchestral showpieces from the ever-reliable Chandos is the sheer visceral impact of the surround-sound recording. If earlier conductors (notably Dorati and Solti) have found more Hungarian panache in the scores, Bartok’s music has never sounded better in these recordings which do full justice to the immense richness of the scoring. Edward Gardner and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra perform Music for Strings, Percussion, and CelestaI, a seminal work written for a unique ensemble consisting two string orchestras, playing from opposite sides of the stage, and a group of percussion instruments in addition to the piano, harp, and celesta. The piece took on wider recognition when it was used by Stanley Kubrick on the soundtrack of The Shining. Also on this disc is the Suite from Bartók’s dark and gritty ballet The Miraculous Mandarin. The work, featuring some of the most colourful music Bartók wrote, tells the story of three criminals who force a young woman to lure passers-by into a room where they intend to rob them. The third passer-by to enter the room is the mandarin. The men try to kill him, but only when the girl satisfies his desire do his wounds begin to bleed, and he dies. The Four Orchestral Pieces, drafted in 1912, but not orchestrated until 1921, were written at a time when Bartók felt both misunderstood and ignored and had withdrawn from musical life in Budapest. These feelings of rejection may well have intensified the anger and cynicism found in this work. 

 

GOLDMARK SYMPHONIE ‘LÄNDLICHE HOCHZEIT’ (RUSTIC WEDDING SYMPHONY); SYMPHONY NO. 2, Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Lan Shui/BIS 1842 SACD  This first recording of the Rustic Wedding Symphony in the SACD medium may once again establish the piece as a favourite, albeit one which has now faded somewhat in the repertoire. Never before has it sounded as impressive as it does in this this recording. Mainly known for his violin concerto, Hungarian composer Karl Goldmark was praised for the quality of his instrumentation, his skilful use of folk music and his evident gift for melody. Composed in 1875, the ‘Rustic Wedding’ Symphony was his most popular orchestral work. 

 

BRAHMS: PIANO CONCERTOS Stephen Hough, Mozarteumorchester Salzburg, Mark Wigglesworth, Hyperion CDA67961  Unsurprisingly, Stephen Hough proves to be a master of Brahms in this imperishable duo of concertos. This attractively priced double set is one of Stephen Hough’s most impressive recordings. He is joined by the Mozarteumorchester Salzburg and Mark Wigglesworth, making their Hyperion debut. Separated by twenty-two years and widely differing in their reception (the first was scorned and the second a huge success), they are monumental in scale, impassioned and truly romantic, forward-looking in form and requiring both great virtuosity and intimacy from the pianist. Stephen Hough has performed them in concert for many years to ecstatic acclaim: this new recording is emblematic. 

 

HUGHES: WHEN THE FLAME DIES Soloists, New music Players, Carlos Del Cueto/Metier MSV 77203  With a libretto by the distinguished crime novelist RN (Roger) Morris, this is an intriguing Cocteau-esue opera that resists reaching for easy harmonic comforts, but is by no means rebarbative in its musical garb. And there is no gainsaying the vocal skills of the persuasive soloists, notably the mezzo-soprano Lucy Williams, who characterises her role with conviction, ever-mindful of Morris’s text.

 

LISZT: HUNGARIAN RHAPSODIES Orchester Wiener Akadamie, Martin Haslelböck/CPO 777 797-2  Crammed with colour and infectious Hungarian energy, these readings of the orchestral versions of the rhapsodies are splendid, if missing the final ounce of abandon; some will miss the cimbalom often used in these orchestrations.

 

STRAUSS: DIE FRAU OHNE SCHATTEN Soloists/ Mariinsky Orchestra / Valery Gergiev/DVD9  It is perhaps not surprising that this strangest of Strauss’s operas has long been considered a tough nut to crack, but the number of performances which have the measure of the work have become more quotidian — as is the case with this reading that takes an intriguing approach to this symbolist piece. The Russian voices have a highly individual sound which may not be for every musical palate, but the vocal colouring is always distinctive. Picture and sound values are impressive. Filmed in the historic Mariinsky Theatre in 2011, the set features Russian tenor Avgust Amonov as The Emperor, Mlada Khudoley as The Empress, Olga Savova as The Nurse, and is conducted by Valery Gergiev. The Mariinsky Theatre is one of the few opera houses capable of staging Die Frau ohne Schatten, due to the demanding soloist roles, elaborate sets and large orchestral forces required. This epic production, premiered in 2009, is a collaboration between two British artists, director Jonathan Kent and designer Paul Brown, and has become a regular fixture in the opera company’s schedule. Kent has a long established relationship with the Mariinsky, and with Strauss in particular.

 

SZYMANOWSKI: STABAT MATER, HARNASIE, Lucy Crowe (soprano), Pamela Helen Stephen (mezzosoprano),Gabor Bretz (baritone), Robert Murray (tenor), BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Edward Gardner/CHANDOS CHSA 5123  How unusual to have to register a a degree of disappointment about a Chandos disc, which is nevertheless one that the reviewer is obliged to recommend. Szymanowski’s resplendent scores are here treated to a recording which outshines every previous reading in terms of sound quality, and the Stabat Mater immediately becomes a default recommendation in this luminous reading. Harnasie, too, is immensely impressive — but frankly does not unseat earlier performances by Rattle and Satanowski, as Edward Gardner’s approach appears to be not out of synch with the barbaric splendour of this Stravinsky-influenced score, and markedly underplays its savage excitement. That said, the disc remains an essential purchase for those who want these pieces in SACD sound. Vigorous and colourful, the ballet-pantomime Harnasie (1927 – 31) is typical of Szymanowski’s late style. It is ambitious, too, in its attempt at re-working folk music in symphonic form. Scored for a massive orchestra with tenor soloist and chorus, the work concerns the abduction of a peasant bride-to-be by the outlaw Harnas and his followers, the ‘Harnasie’, legendary robbers with more than just a hint of a Robin Hood reputation. Szymanowski described his Stabat Mater as a ‘Peasant Requiem’. In fact, its pairing of Polish musical elements with liturgical text is entirely unique, and a clear reflection of the composer’s nationalistic convictions. Despite its modest size and its use of very modest orchestral forces, the work is considered one of Szymanowski’s most expressive and resonant, and it is one of the crowning glories of twentieth-century sacred music. 

 

BLOCH: SYMPHONY IN C SHARP MINOR NAXOS 8.5723241  This symphony, though hardly a masterpiece, is testament to the considerable reach of its underrated composer’s talents. While most composers established their own definite style within their respective historical period, Bloch was unique, caring nothing for the fashions of the time. An emotionally evocative work, the Symphony in C sharp minor depicts Bloch’s innermost emotions through rhapsodic forms, polyphony and modal tonalities. Also included is Bloch’s Poems of the Sea, depicting a nautical landscape with striking clarity. Dalia Atlas is a leading expert on Bloch and has undertaken extensive research into the composer’s music. She considers the Symphony in C sharp minor as his greatest work.

 

STRAVINSKY, BRAHMS, PIAZOLLA Piano Duos, Bax & Chung, Piano Duo/SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD 365  Virtuosic pianism is the order of the day here; if the two-piano versions of Stravinsky’s Petrushka dances have the effect (as ever) of making one yearn for their orchestral dress, there is no denying the sheer panache with which they’re dispatched here. Bax and Chung demonstrate an almost supernatural understanding of the demands of the duo repertoire.

 

THE LARK ASCENDING: MOERAN: VIOLIN CONCERTO/DELIUS: LÉGENDE/ VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: THE LARK ASCENDING, ETC. Tasmin Little (violin). BBC Philharmonic, Sir Andrew Davis/CHANDOS 10796  Just how many recordings can The Lark Ascending warrant? Its recent topping of a poll as one of the favoured pieces for classical listeners is hardly surprising, and Tasmin Little once again reminds us how incandescent is its beauty. There are any number of readings, but few as impressive as this. In this release, playing works by Vaughan Williams, Moeran, Delius, and Holst, Tasmin Little once again demonstrates her unique affinity with some of the best loved British composers of the twentieth century. She is joined by Sir Andrew Davis and the BBC Philharmonic. E.J. Moeran composed his Violin Concerto during visits to Ireland, and it strongly reflects his love of the landscape in County Kerry. The Lark Ascending, Ralph Vaughan Williams’s much-loved romance for violin and orchestra, has long been considered a pièce de resistance for Tasmin Little, one that she is often called on to perform in concert. This disc also features three works by Elgar, all heard in arrangements by Roger Turner: Chanson de matin of 1899, its companion piece, Chanson de nuit, which features a dark-coloured main melody appropriate to its title, and Salut d’amour, one of the early works that made the composer’s name.

BRUCKNER: THE COMPLETE SYMPHONIES Sinfonieorcheter Aachen, MarcusBosch SACD Coviello Classics COV 31215 This set is something of an achievement, the first complete recording of all the Bruckner symphonies in the SACD medium, including the underregarded symphonies numbers 0 and 00. These performances have enjoyed some acclaim over the years, though there are those who have expressed reservations about the broad cathedral acoustic. But a strong argument could be made for the fact that the resonance on offer here actually offers the best possible sound picture for these works, so full of profound gravitas. But perhaps the best aspect of Bosch’s performances is the refusal to treat the composer in the steady, low-voltage fashion of so many of his predecessors. He is not afraid to emphasise the dramatic pulse of the music, resulting in several performances which are notably swifter and more dynamic than any which have so far appeared. Inevitably, no one set of Bruckner’s symphonies can be definitive, but this is a set to reckon with, graced with broad-ranging sound. 

 

VERDI: OTELLO Soloists, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Riccardo Muti/CSO-Resound SACD CSOR-901 1303  It almost goes without saying that the storm sequence which opens Verdi’s operatic masterpiece is presented to the best possible advantage in the super audio SACD medium, with the brass interjections providing a heft rarely heard in recordings of the opera. If some other elements are problematic (notably Carlo Guelfi’s slightly hectoring Iago), the performance as a whole has the Italianate conviction required, despite the varied ethnicity of the performers, and the conductor manages to unerringly maintain a rigourous through-line.

 

DOHNANYI, ERNO, KOKAI: ORCHESTRAL WORKS/Miskolc Symphony Orchestra László Kovács/ Hungaroton HCD32716  Listeners with a taste for the unorthodox may be tempted by these obscure pieces, but, surprisingly, it is not the Dohnanyi which is the real find on the set, but the obscure piece by Kókai’. This release from Hungaroton brings two rarely recorded works together: Dohnányi’s The Veil of Pierrette and Kókai’s Verbunkos Suite. Dohnányi as a composer of stage works made his debut during his Berlin stay, with the pantomime The Veil of Pierrette composed in 1908-1909. First performed in Dresden in 1910 and received enthusiastic critical acclaim. Rezső Kókai studied composition with Hans Koessler and piano with Professor Emánuel Hegyi at the Budapest Academy of Music. Written in 1950, the four-movement Verbunkos Suite draws on the typical melodic and rhythmic treasury of 19th century Hungarian national music. Splendid performances by the Miskolic Symphony Orchestra under their conductor László Kovács. 

 

SHOSTAKOVICH SYMPHONY NO. 8, Mariinsky Orchestra, Valery Gergiev/Mariinsky SACD MARO 525  Valery Gergiev continues his much-acclaimed Shostakovich symphony cycle with this weighty and colourful (if unyielding) account of the Eighth Symphony. There is, of course, no conductor in the world today who conducts as much of the music of Shostakovich, and Gergiev bids fair to be the most authoritative voice among the composer’s spokesmen. If the recording is a touch dry, there is no denying that Gergiev is more than ready to take on all the aspects of the piece from its more measured serious undertones to the almost manic energy of its allegro passages. Not, perhaps, a performance to unseat the great readings of the past, but still impressive, with the conductor’s vocal obbligati sometimes audible.

 

SCHUBERT: SYMPHONY NO. 6, MUSIC FROM ROSAMUNDE, Swedish Chamber Orchestra Thomas Dausgaard/BIS 1987 SACD  Understatedly persuasive and memorable readings of these most ingratiating of scores, with every orchestral detail perfectly balanced in Thomas Dausgaard’s performances. The BIS SACD recording does full justice to these limpid scores.

ADAMS: HARMONIELEHRE, DOCTOR ATOMIC SYMPHONY,SHORT RIDE IN A FAST MACHINE/Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Peter Oundjian/CHANDOS SACD CHSA 5129  In this new release Peter Oundjian and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra tackle two seminal works by the American composer John Adams. Harmonielehre, a symphony in all but name, is an expansive, richly expressive, and often breathtaking work. It takes its title from a 1911 text by Arnold Schoenberg on harmonic theory and evokes the lush soundworld of that composer’s early tonal period. Also heard throughout the score are echoes of Mahler, Wagner, Strauss, Sibelius, Debussy, Ravel, and Stravinsky. The piece also takes inspiration from some of Adams’s own strange and surreal dreams. The Doctor Atomic Symphony, based on Adams’s controversial opera Doctor Atomic, focuses on the character of the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer as preparations are made for the first test of the atomic bomb. Although played without a break, the symphony falls into three distinct sections: ‘The Laboratory’, ‘Panic’, and ‘Trinity’. The symphony’s concluding section takes its title from the name given to the bomb test site by Oppenheimer himself, with reference to a deeply spiritual John Donne sonnet. This poem is set to music at the end of Act I of the opera and here in the symphony the aria’s intense vocal line is performed by solo trumpet. Also featured on the disc is John Adams’s energetic fanfare Short Ride in a Fast Machine. 

 

SHOSTAKOVICH: THE EXECUTION OF STEPAN RAZIN, etc. Helsinki Philhramonic, Vladimir Ashkenay Ondine ODE 1225-2  Ondine’s disc of two intensely dramatic works by Shostakovich is highly accomplished. The Execution of Stepan Razin is a spine-chilling account of Razin’s bloody beheading and the Zoya Suite is an orchestral abridgement of the film score from 1944 depicting the 18-year old partisan Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya fighting against the Germans. These works are coupled with the relatively unknown Suite on Finnish Themes. Discovered nearly 40 years after Shostakovich’s death, the suite includes several arrangements of Finnish folk songs arranged for Soprano and Tenor soloists. The Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Vladimir Ashkenazy revels in the drama and passion of the works. 

 

BRITTEN: SAINT NICOLAS, HYMN TO ST CECILIA, REJOICE IN THE LAMB, Andrew Kennedy, The Choir of Kings College Cambridge, Britten Sinfonia, Stephen Cleobury/Harmonia Mundi SACD KGS003  This new disc is the first occasion on which these pieces have been recorded in the SACD medium, and demonstrates the extra aural nuances that surround sound can provide, although, surprisingly, the organ is more recessed than many performances of Rejoice in the Lamb. The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge under conductor Stephen Cleobury presents Britten’s enchanting choral masterpiece Saint Nicolas, with Hymn to St Cecilia and Rejoice in the Lamb, celebrating 100 years since Benjamin Britten’s birth. The recording features soloist Andrew Kennedy, a former choral scholar at King’s College, Cambridge, the renowned Britten Sinfonia, Sawston Village College Choir and Cambridge University Musical Society.

 

HOLST ORCHESTRAL WORKS, VOL. 3: THE MYSTIC TRUMPETER, FIRST CHORAL SYMPHONY, Susan Gritton (soprano), BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sir Andrew Davis/CHANDOS CHSA 5127 SACD  Those who feared that Richard Hickox’s Holst series was to die with the conductor can be reassured that the series is now taken up under the aegis of Andrew Davis. This third CD devoted to orchestral works by Gustav Holst is part of a series that was inaugurated by Hickox who died in 2009 after having completed only Volume 1. Fortunately, Chandos was able to secure the services of Sir Andrew Davis for the second volume, on which he conducted the BBC Philharmonic in a unique programme of The Planets and two comparative rarities in the concert hall, Japanese Suite and Beni Mora. Now we are given The Mystic Trumpeter and the First Choral Symphony, this time conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and the Grammy-nominated soprano Susan Gritton. Composed originally in 1904 and revised in 1912, The Mystic Trumpeter received only two performances in Holst’s lifetime, and it was not revived until 1980. Holst based this work on a poem from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. The influence of Hindu thought is clearly present throughout the piece, while musically there are fingerprints of his later style too, particularly in the use of bitonality (two different keys used simultaneously). The ending is calm and beautifully serene, and wholly characteristic of the mature Holst’s ability to do the unexpected. Holst drafted the First Choral Symphony in 1923, shortly after his largely unsuccessful attempt at grand opera with The Perfect Fool. The mixed reception that the work received was to some extend provoked by his choice of texts. Although all are by Keats, they are still vastly different one from another. Although Holst chose them for their ability to stimulate his musical imagination, the fact that verbally they followed little or no sequence was of no great concern to him. In the texts from Endymion, for example, his exuberant side is given free rein, while Ode on a Grecian Urn reveals another side, one of calm and composure. ‘Fancy’, from Extracts from an Opera, is set as a whirling Scherzo, ‘Folly’s Song’ serving as a contrasting earthbound trio. Holst himself said of this Symphony: ‘I think the work as a whole is the best thing I have written.’ 

 

JOHN MUSTO: PIANO CONCERTOS NO. 1 & 2 Musto, Various Orchestras, Scott Yoo, Glen Cortese/BRIDGE 9399  The enterprising label Bridge fills a gap with the neglected composer John Musto’s Piano Concertos No. 1 & 2 and Two Concert Rags. In recent years, John Musto has been praised as one of America’s musical talents, though unknown in the UK. This release highlights two of his previously unrecorded major works; his concertos No. 1, a thirty-minute dark, brooding score; and No. 2 a joyous and extroverted celebration. 

 

TCHAIKOVSKY: SWAN LAKE James Ehnes (violin), Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Neeme Järvi/CHANDOS SACD (2 SACDs for the price of 2 full price CDs)  This is the second instalment in the Chandos series devoted to Tchaikovsky’s three great ballets. Neeme Järvi and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra initiated the project last year with the complete score of The Sleeping Beauty. Here they present another, equally well-loved work: Swan Lake. Once again they bring us the complete uncut version of the score, with James Ehnes lending his magic to the violin solos. The complete score of The Nutcracker will follow in 2014. In Swan Lake, the Swan Queen takes her melancholy, oboe-led place among the composer’s many heroes and heroines destined never to know lasting fulfilment in love. The story tells of Odette, a princess turned by an evil sorcerer’s curse into a swan, and thus caught between the human and supernatural worlds, until she is finally released from the spell, and united in death with her true love. This was Tchaikovsky’s first full-length ballet, but its premiere in 1875, staged at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre, was by no means a resounding success. According to most accounts, the choreography was inept, the shabby sets and costumes were borrowed from other productions, and the orchestral playing was poor. As such, most ballet companies today base their productions on the 1895 revival by the preeminent choreographer Marius Petipa, staged for the Imperial Ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg. For this revival, Tchaikovsky’s score was revised by the composer Riccardo Drigo, also the chief conductor of the St Petersburg Imperial Theatre. Although these amendments may have served the conventional 1890s notion of ‘danceability’, one may argue that the overall cuts and reordering ultimately destroyed Tchaikovsky’s ground-plan of drama and tonality. In this recording, Chandos presents Tchaikovsky’s original score of twenty-nine numbers and four acts, written for the Bolshoi Theatre, along with several supplementary numbers provided not long after the initial 1875 premiere.

 

BEETHOVEN PIANO SONATAS VOL. 4 Angela Hewitt, Hyperion CDA67974 The matchless Angela Hewitt presents a fourth volume in her acclaimed series of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, which has won considerable acclaim. The Sonata in B flat major, Op 22, the last of Beethoven’s ‘early’ sonatas, is recorded alongside Op 31 No 3 (sometimes known as ‘La chasse’, or ‘The Hunt’, because of its tumultuous Presto con fuoco finale). The album is concluded with Op 101, all distinguished by Hewitt’s musical intelligence and feeling. 

 

AMERICAN PIANO CONCERTOS: GERSHWIN, COPLAND AND BARBER, Xiayin Wang (piano), Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Peter Oundjian/ CHANDOS CHSA 5128  The young Chinese-born pianist Xiayin Wang, now resident in the USA, is the soloist in three piano concertos by the American composers George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, and Samuel Barber, performed with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under Peter Oundjian. The Concerto in F by Gershwin, composed in 1925, represents one of his finest syntheses of the classical and jazz traditions. His extraordinary skill as a tunesmith is heard in full force within the concerto’s three movements, the work expressing his ‘unabashed delight in the stridency, the gaucheries, the joy and excitement of life as it is lived right here and now’. Xiayin Wang has already shown her natural affinity with Gershwin’s music in her previous Chandos release, playing Earl Wild’s Gershwin transcriptions. Copland’s Piano Concerto from 1927 is another work influenced by jazz. At the time of its premiere, comparisons were inevitably drawn between this and Gershwin’s Concerto but Copland dismissed the influence of Gershwin. Rather, his style reflects the jazz elements used by composers living in Paris in the 1920s, such as Milhaud and Stravinsky. The work’s two distinct sections reflect what Copland believed to be the two basic moods of jazz, ‘the slow blues and the snappy number’. Barber’s Pulitzer Prize winning Concerto for Piano dates from 1962. Like the other two works on the disc it shows the diversity of influence in American music in the twentieth century. Moments of harmonic ambiguity and muscular dissonance reflect Barber’s interest in Russian music, a subtle jazz influence enriching the musical language, especially in the rhythms of the compact finale. The music manifests a dramatic and rhetorical style, however, that is deeply rooted in a romanticism which pervades all of Barber’s output.

 

 

 

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