Beethoven – The Complete String Quartets [8 CDs]
Zig-Zag Territoires ZZT344 (2014)
Little, surely, need be said by way of introduction to these sixteen quartets, written between 1798 and 1826 and collectively representing one of the supreme monuments of Western art and culture. The intimidating shadow of their greatness hung across the remainder of the 19th Century, prompting Schubert himself to question what was left to write?! So it has long irked me that, despite owning several recordings of the late quartets, I did not have all of the early ones. As a big fan of “complete” recordings – on artistic and economic grounds, OCD tendencies notwithstanding – the appearance of this complete edition (the coupling of two recently released half-sets) on my current favourite record label, by one of my favourite Quartets, was not to be passed up.
My introduction to the Belceas had been their wonderful 2006 recording of two late Mozart Quartets (EMI 3 44455 2), the fiery virtuosity of which promised a potentially explosive reaction with Beethoven’s imposing, even “ferocious” late works. From the first notes, though, it’s clear that you leave your presuppositions at the door with this recording; these are unpredictable, highly individual readings that find a new depth of expression, intricacy and finesse in these works. Returning to lauded recent recordings by the Tokyo and Takacs Quartets left them sounding flat, strangely two-dimensional by comparison; the fullness and multi-threaded complexity of the Belcea’s sound seemingly more akin to a quintet. Movement timings are often longer than normal, this the result of a greater range of tempi rather than any lack of attack in the quicker sections. Ultimately, the Belcea’s intensely cerebral reading is more engaging and more exciting than those established benchmarks, and not by a small margin. Some, perhaps, might find it too intense.
The sound quality is a little perplexing; most of the time it is wonderful, wide and richly textured thanks to the Snape Maltings acoustic … but at high volume it is just occasionally hot in the treble. This gave me little concern, as the sound avoids hardening up like genuinely bright recordings and thus remains very listenable, but some critics have complained about it. Overall, I can’t say this is the only recording you’ll ever need – after all, its most special qualities are revealed only by comparison – but it is surely one of the very finest. AF
Haydn – Violin Concertos [65:54]
Midori Seiler – Violin / Concerto Koln
Berlin Classics 0300550BC (2014)
While violin concertos had been churned out in their hundreds during the High Baroque, their popularity in the Classical period waned to the extent that Mozart produced only five, Beethoven just one, and Haydn – so the story goes – eleven. Yet it now seems that most of those have been mis-attributed (a common problem in this period, unscrupulous publishers typically the culprits); Haydn’s own records attest to the production of just three violin concertos, one of which is lost, but an earlier work has also been proven authentic and thus accounts for the three concertos recorded here. All were written in the 1760s, early in Haydn’s career – one for himself to play the lead, the others (notably more brilliant) for his illustrious pupil Tomasini. As one would expect, given their date, they are modelled on the Italian Baroque style, yet they also confirm how quickly the new spirit of classicism, with its much broader emotional palette, was taking hold – a transition that Mozart would complete a decade later.
It would be easy to over-play these pieces, but the vastly experienced Midori Seiler and German period instrument orchestra Concerto Koln bring their lightness, charm and humour to the fore, in a performance full of warmth and character. The sound quality is utterly gorgeous – supremely natural, transparent and spacious, with majestic bass extension and exceptional instrumental colour and texture. A fabulous disc in every respect, and worthy recipient of our new ‘Audiophilia Star Recording’ accolade. AF
[It is with great pleasure that we award the Audiophilia Star Recording Award to the Berlin Classics 300550BC release. Congratulations! - Ed]
Faure – Masques et Bergamasques, etc. [70:29]
Seattle Symphony / Morlot
Seattle Symphony Media SSM1004 (2014)
Active for the half-century after 1870, a golden age of French composers, the special elegance and refinement of tone and melody in Gabriel Faure’s music still sets him apart in the illustrious company of Debussy, Saint-Saens et al. Better known (to me, at least!) for his lovely chamber music, this disc gathers together shorter orchestral and orchestrated works spanning almost his entire career. Most will recognise the haunting strains of the Pavane, I suspect – though it appears here in its later and lesser-known choral version, with lyrics supplied by a French aristocrat. I much prefer the original, but that’s just me. Also likely to seem strangely familiar are the Elegie, a highlight of the cello repertory, and the Kitty Waltz. Yet this is all attractive music, lent additional variety by the range of solo instruments (flute, violin and cello).
I know that the intention with this recording – released on the orchestra’s own label – was to achieve audiophile quality, and this I think they have achieved. Avoiding sonic pyrotechnics and exaggerated dynamics, the sound has that limpid quality, restrained top end and realistic imaging that attest to genuine fidelity. On the other hand, the recording venue strikes me as having that rather subdued, over-damped quality common to modern halls, which robs the sound of a little sparkle. Nevertheless, the enjoyable programme and fine sound quality make this disc an easy recommendation. AF
Dowland – Lachrimae or Seaven Teares [67:57]
Fuga Libera FUG718 (2013)
The Elizabethan composer, John Dowland, is best known for his solo lute music and songs, but published this collection of 21 “diverse” Pavans, Galiards and Almands in 1604, for five viols and lute. Employed in the Danish court, he had intended to use it to support his application for a position with Elizabeth I – but she died unexpectedly, and no offer was forthcoming from her successor, James I. Today, however, the collection is seen as one of the crowning achievements of English consort music. It explores the Elizabethan obsession with melancholy, with its neo-Platonic links to divine gnosis – examined in fascinating detail in the impressive liner notes – yet, as Dowland himself wryly admits, “neither are the tears always shed in sorrowe, but sometimes in joy and gladnesse”! For me, listening to this music, which gently and inexorably progresses through polyphonic cycles, always results in a trance-like reverie that is, above all, uplifting.
This is a debut recording for the Hathor Consort, but they have much collective experience and their ensemble is very fine. The key to recording this music, with the significant bottom end weight available, is achieving a balance that doesn’t allow the bass frequencies to dominate, and that is done very well. Fine soundstaging also provides subtle positional cues that help to map each instrument’s contribution. A disc well worth acquiring, and especially recommended to those unfamiliar with the genre. AF
Rachmaninov - Vespers [60:20]
Netherlands Radio Choir / Kaspars Putnins
BIS 2039 9 (2014)
Rachmaninov is most often thought of as a composer of piano concertos and three magnificent symphonies which is quite correct, but if you scratch beneath the surface of his music you come across a strain of religious thought which permeates through most of his compositions. This takes the form of snippets of Russian orthodox chants or melodic lines from church services passed down through the centuries and embodied in the very fabric of Russian life before the revolution of 1917.
His oratorio The Bells is one of the most popular and dramatic works for choir and orchestra and this was a stepping stone for the eventual pinnacle of his writing for voice, Vespers. Written in 1915, the Vespers are a setting for the all night vigil service and are divided into fifteen settings designed to see worshippers through to daybreak. They are dramatic, powerful and represent Rachmaninov’s feelings for all he cherished about Russian life and religion distilled into a perfect choral setting of great beauty.
The Netherlands Radio Choir give an outstanding performance of this work singing in the Slavonic tongue that the Orthodox Church kept alive and is delivered in stunning SACD sound. JN
Ernest Bloch - Symphony in E Flat; Macbeth Interludes; Three Jewish Poems; In Memoriam [70:00]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Dalia Atlas
Naxos 8.573290 (2104)
A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of listening to Bloch’s Isreal symphony in Carnegie hall, the very hall that it was premiered in nearly a century ago. While listening, I couldn’t help wondering why his music is so little known. Apart from his Schelomo for Cello and Orchestra, which has secured a place in concert halls due to its popularity with leading players such as Piatagorsky and Tortelier, his other thirty odd works have little attention. This is a shame, for on the evidence of the works on this disc, he was a gifted and talented composer crossing over genres and producing vital and listenable music for over fifty years.
The Macbeth Interludes are very striking and remind me of the film music of Korngold. The score could have been written for a Warner Brothers movie starring Errol Flynn and it is even more surprising when you realise that the music was written in the early 1900s. If Bloch had followed Korngold to Hollywood his future would have been secured but he was constantly trying different styles.
The Eb Symphony is a very assured work written in 1955, four years before his death, and receives a sweeping performance from the RPO under Dalia Atlas, as do all the works on the disc. Bloch, like so many composers during the 20th Century suffered from the effects of the two world wars and he really shines in his attempts to use Jewish themes and ideas in the music he wrote especially for his kinsmen. The Jewish Poems illustrate this very well and probably contain the key to his real style. Perhaps some enterprising concert series will take this up and promote his Jewish scores which would provide an enriching addition to the repertoire. JN