New Highlights from BIS, PentaTone & Oehms

BIS2050

Classical CD Choice CD of the Month: RESPIGHI: IMPRESSIONI BRASILIANE, LA BOUTIQUE FANTASQUE, Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liége, John Neschling/BIS 2050 SACD  The days when Respighi was routinely patronised as a superficial composer thankfully recede further and further into the past. At one time, even his detractors would grudgingly concede the composer’s consummate mastery of orchestration, but that was the extent of their praise. His signature work, the Roman Trilogy, has always enjoyed a multiplicity of recordings, even in the SACD medium, but of the two pieces on this welcome new BIS disc, only Brazilian Impressions is new to the medium. In both cases, John Neschling and the Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liége winkle out every delicious detail of orchestration and finesse the very life out of the music; what’s more, the surround sound facility allows the listener to relish those exquisite details which were hitherto lost in the orchestral mélange. And with even the composer’s neglected ballet Belkis shortly to appear in surround sound, these are good days for Respighi aficionados.

MOZART PIANO CONCERTOS 13 & 24, 15 & 27 Netherlands Chamber Orchestra, Martin Helmchen (piano), Gordan Nikolic/PentaTone PTC 5 186305 & PTC 518 6508 SACD  Recordings of the Mozart piano concertos constitute a highly competitive (and overcrowded) field, so something special is required to lift new entries out of the rut. That something special is most emphatically provided here with performances that combine sinewy grace with immense elegance. Helmchen finds the poetry of the composer’s writing throughout, without perhaps the last ounce of skill of Mitsuko Uchida (CD only). It goes without saying that the PentaTone recordings all the discs does full justice to the sound balance; Mozart’s more restrained colour palette proves to be as receptive to the nuances of SACD surround sound as do the orchestral masterpieces on a grander scale that PentaTone specialises in. This is very much a serious contender.

SHOSTAKOVICH: SYMPHONIES 4, 5 & 6, Mariinsky Orchestra, Valery Gergiev, Mariinsky MARO 548SACD One of the world’s great conductors, the late Colin Davis, recorded some of his most impressive performances live towards the end of his career, but these are often marred by the conductor’s recurrent penchant for grunting, gasping and making otherwise massively intrusive exhortations to the orchestra. I can vouch for the fact that these were somehow less off-putting at live performances, but on record – particularly in the SACD medium in which every aural nuance is captured with immense fidelity — these noises were constant distractions from the otherwise exemplary performances. Davis’s vocal obligatti, however, were nothing compared to those of the great Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, which are taken to almost cosmic levels in these recordings, rendering several of the pieces as virtual concerti for conductor and orchestra. And this is a massive shame, as the conductor brings all of his customary authority to these Shostakovich scores which are in both his own blood and that of his magnificent orchestra. Is it not possible for the Mariinsky engineers to have a quiet word in the conductor’s ear? Or is his view, perhaps: ‘These are my performances, take them or leave them, grunting and all’?

WEINBERG: SYMPHONY NO. 18, TRUMPET CONCERTO, St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra, Andrew Ballo, trumpet, Vladimir Lande /NAXOS 8.573190  Another impressive excavation from Naxos of a neglected Soviet symphonic corpus, compromised to some extent by a percussion player so hilariously far from the composer’s notation that his contribution sounds like an avant-garde extemporisation.

MASSENET: OUVERTURE DE ‘PHÈDRE’ / LE DERNIER SOMMEIL DE LA VIERGE* / SCÈNES ITTORESQUES / FANTAISIE* / OVERTURE TO ‘LE ROI DE LAHORE’, ETC., Truls Mørk (cello)* / Orchestre de la Suisse Romande / Neeme Järvi/Chandos CHSA 5137 SACD  Massenet may be primarily associated with opera, but his orchestral works (as this collection proves) deserve attention. This generous nosegay of overtures, ballet music, and concert pieces is full of charm and colour, with the composer’s mastery of orchestration fully in evidence, even in the thinner pieces (and not everything here is a neglected masterpiece). The Orchestre de la Suisse Romande (under its Music and Artistic Director, Neeme Järvi) make the best possible cases for the Ouverture de ‘Phèdre’ of 1874, the winning Scènes pittoresques, and the ‘plum ‘ of the disc, the ‘Suite de ballet’ from Le Cid, all in exemplary surround sound.

MAHLER: SYMPHONIES 4,5,6, Philharmonia Orchestra, Lorin Maazel/Signum Classics SIGCD 361 Time has not dimmed the power of the performances here, rightly celebrated in their day, although advances in recording techniques have made these once state-of-the-art recordings sound their age somewhat. But there is no gainsaying the conductor’s total commitment to three key symphonies from one of the greatest of the late Romantic composers.

BRAHMS: STRING QUINTETS/SEXTETS Alexander String Quartet/Foghorn Classics CD 2012  In svelte and subtle recordings that capture every delicate strand of Brahms’ masterly writing for his chamber resources, these are among the finest recordings that these masterworks have ever enjoyed; the Alexander String Quartet and their associates have the full measure of the music here.

KHACHATURIAN: VIOLIN SONATA & DANCES FROM GAYANEH AND SPARTACUS, Hideko Udagawa & Boris Berezovsky/Nimbus Alliance NI 6269 The extracts from the two ballets here are much recorded (although not in these transcriptions for violin and piano) and are given enthusiastic readings. But the real find here is the Violin Sonata of 1932. This thoroughly characteristic piece is played with great conviction, as are the other short pieces (such as the quirky Song-poem of 1929).

BEETHOVEN: THE LATE QUARTETS ARRANGED FOR STRING ORCHESTRA: STRING QUARTETS NOS. 13-16 Camerata Nordica, Terje Tønnesen/BIS 1096 Along with furnishingthe wider dynamic arena that a more substantial body of strings affords, Tønnesen’s sympathetic transcriptions point up new elements in these endlessly inventive masterworks. This set was previously issued by the now defunct Altara; the re-mastering here by BIS much improves the sound quality.

MAHLER: SYMPHONY No. 9, Danish National Symphony Orchestra., Michael Schønwandt/Challenge Classics CC72636  There is a daunting selection of recordings available of Mahler’s monumental final symphonic utterance (leaving aside the uncompleted Tenth), so any new contender has to offer something distinctive – which is in fact what Michael Schønwandt does in this carefully considered recording. The opening Andante is powerfully affecting, and the recording does full justice to that astonishing writing for strings – although it must be said that the many surround sound recordings of this piece are better able to encompass the wide dynamic range than stereo can accommodate.

THE TUDORS AT PRAYER – MUSIC BY WILLIAM MUNDY; ROBERT WHITE; JOHN TAVERNER; THOMAS TALLIS; WILLIAM BYRD, Magnificat; Philip Cave/Linn CKD 447  Continuing its exploration of Tudor Latin sacred music, ‘The Tudors At Prayer’ sees Magnificat perform music by Taverner, Tallis, Mundy, White and Byrd. The highlight is Mundy’s Vox Patris caelestis; immensely vivid and colourful this is a powerful performance to challenge any that has gone before. Equally enthralling is Magnificat’s Spem in alium, but with even richer textures, Vox Patris caelestis demonstrates Magnificat’s authority.

MAHLER SYMPHONY NO. 6 Gurzenich-Orchester Köln, Markus Stenz OEHMS OC 651  While not rivalling some of the titanic performances this masterpieces has received in recent years (several in the SACD medium), this is nevertheless one of the most plangent and dramatic of recordings, captured in sound that encompasses the widest range of the composer’s vast tonal palette. Those who have been collecting this series need not hesitate, although Michael Tilson Thomas’s exhilarating San Francisco performance remains the most impressive entry in the SACD medium.

WALTON: VIOLIN CONCERTO / SYMPHONY NO. 1, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Tasmin Little (violin) / Edward Gardner/ Chandos CHSA 5136 SACD  Chandos starEdward Gardner conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra in two orchestral showpieces by William Walton, a poetic reading of his Violin Concerto and a vigorous take on the Symphony No. 1, perhaps lacking the intensity of the classic Previn recording, but still immensely exhilarating. The early success of such pieces as Façade, the Viola Concerto, and Belshazzar’s Feast identified the composer as a major British talent, and the first symphony was commissioned by Sir Hamilton Harty in 1932. The premier complete performance of the work was a massive success. The Violin Concerto was written in 1938 to a commission from Jascha Heifetz, and the sensitive soloist here is Tasmin Little, whose recordings of concertos by Britten, Elgar and Delius, have gleaned much praise..

THE MUSIC OF JOHN BARRY The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra and London Music Works, Nic Raine/Silva Screen SILCD 1445  Silva Screen have long been passionate advocates of the inventive film music of John Barry, but never before have they provided such a deluxe package as this multiple CD set of some of the composer’s finest work for the cinema. The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra and London Music Works (with the participation of the estimable conductor Nic Raine) offer competition to the composer himself in vigorous performances of several James Bond scores, and the recording here is (needless to say) far superior to the originals.