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Link to 2010 recommendations.
Audiophilia Recommended New Releases - Update 30/12/11
Saint-Saëns – Elan: Ballet Music from Operas [73:04]
Orchestra Victoria / Tourniaire
Melba SACD MR301130 (2011)
If you find it difficult to associate the impeccably tasteful, refined classicist who was Camille Saint-Saëns with the flamboyance of opera then you are in good company – his contemporaries struggled similarly and the thirteen operas he composed had little success, being for the most part quickly forgotten. Of the four excerpted on this disc, only one has received a performance in modern times, with others neglected for over a century. Melba’s voyage of discovery into these lost treasures has focussed on the ballet sequences which, according to tradition and audience expectation, animated the moments of celebration and high-spirits in French opera. Combined with the preludes and finales, they give us a vivid impression of the music that delighted the denizens of belle époque Paris.
Guillaume Tourniaire’s star has been firmly in the ascendant for the last decade, and he has lately made several critically-acclaimed recordings for Melba with regional Australian orchestras (including a world premiere of Saint-Saëns’ opera ‘Hélène’). He draws a fine, highly-charged performance of great energy, dynamics and charm from the forces of Orchestra Victoria. Melba’s recording quality (from the CD layer of this multi-channel SACD) is, once again, exceptional, and so natural that I regularly found myself surprised when it sounded less like I expected it to and more like it should! This is hugely appealing music; offering fascinating stylistic references to its baroque and medieval themes, the high-spiritedness only recedes for the closing sequence of excerpts from ‘Les Barbares’, a bloodthirsty tale of Ancient Rome. With the usual top-notch packaging and presentation, this is another winner from Melba. AF
Beethoven – Complete Symphonies [5CDs - 330 mins]
La Chambre Philharmonique / Krivine
Naive V5258 (2011)
Can there be any more iconic (and over-recorded) works than these? For many, these nine symphonies – composed between 1799 and 1824 – represent the very pinnacle of the classical oeuvre … yet they have always given me two specific problems. For one, my rag-tag collection of randomly-acquired recordings – spanning the gamut from Karajan to the earliest attempt at a truly authentic performance of the First Symphony – lacked any sort of coherence, so a boxed set had been on my shopping list for a while. The second problem was that, while fully aware of their pivotal place in the history of music, I’ve never actually liked them all that much! Karajan’s recordings, particularly, leave me cold; his Beethoven – the bloodless, marbled Olympian … the Wagnerian cultural icon – is not mine. Behind the impressive yet sombre edifice, I sense no beating heart.
La Chambre Philharmonique is comprised of top players from Europe’s finest orchestras and, as the cheeky sophistry of its name suggests, is sized in-between your typical chamber and philharmonic orchestras. While not strict authenticists, they choose to play period instruments as the more colourful, raw and earthy sound serves their own particular realisation of the music. The effect, compared to typical performances by modern symphony orchestras, is wonderfully refreshing; actually, that’s not true, it’s more like a hit from a defibrillator! Combined with tempos that feel universally fast (though that is partly a result of the tautness and precision of the playing, given that other recent recordings rival their timings), the musicians hurl themselves into the music with a passion that breaks over you like a tidal wave; illuminating the beauty, the power, the majesty but also the humanity of these works like nothing else I’ve heard. Recorded live over the course of a year at three different French venues, the sound quality is universally superb (though the level is seriously hot; shades of the “loudness wars”) while – mercifully – audience noise is non-existent outside of the applause, despite several of the performances occurring during flu season! This is Beethoven that captivates, thrills, soothes and astounds; but most importantly for me, it is Beethoven that I can finally love. If any further sweetener were needed, the 5-CD boxed set is offered at a price more typical of a 2-disc release. Spectacular! AF
Mozart – Flute Quartets [51:00]
Barthold Kuijken – Flute
Accent ACC 10025 (2007)
When your editor is a professional flutist, the smartest course of action is to give the whole area a wide berth so as not to expose your ignorance! Furthermore, although this disc reached me in a pile of new releases, I’m not sure why - it is a 1982 recording that was apparently reissued in 2007. Despite both of these objections, it finds a place here for the simple reason that I love it!
Of the four flute quartets in Mozart’s catalogue, all of which are recorded here, the first three had the same genesis as the flute concertos; a lucrative commission from a wealthy Dutch doctor in December 1777. This was a difficult period in Mozart’s life, and the young man famously protested to his father of the difficulty of writing for an instrument that he “couldn’t abide”. Genius will out, though, and these much loved works stand as models of the ‘galant’ style then in vogue. The final quartet is a later work, written to be played by Mozart with his inner circle of friends, and dates from almost a decade after the others.
The Kuijken brothers have had, through their playing and teaching, an enormous influence on the current generation of period instrument players. Joined here by his better-known siblings, Sigiswald on violin and Wieland on cello, the rich tone of Barthold’s wooden flute highlights a performance of palpable filial warmth and immense charm. While usually favouring a closer recorded perspective, I have to admit that this recording is better served by its spacious, atmospheric acoustic. AF
York Bowen — Viola Sonatas Nos 1 and 2; Phantasy for Viola and Piano [71:18]
The Bridge Duo
I must admit that on the surface this disc didn’t look that interesting but I am happy to say that I was pleasantly surprised and have added York Bowen to my list of neglected English composers whose music I will explore more thoroughly over the coming months.
He was appointed Professor of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music in London at the age of twenty five and was performing his own compositions with the likes of Kreisler and Szigetti as well as performing his 1st Piano Concerto with Henry Wood at the Albert Hall Prom concerts. He met the British Violist Lionel Tertis who persuaded him to write the Sonatas for Viola (an instrument that Bowen also played.)
These works show a very fluent and inspired feel for the sound and range of the Viola and whilst the mood of contemplation is never far away in these works there is plenty of virtuosity and the listener is never left without a strong melody for very long.
The Phantasy is a very striking piece and the Bridge Duo are a fine match for these works with Mathew Jones bringing a rich and always keen line to his playing and Michael Hampton providing strong and poetic support when required.
English music fans will find much to engage them in these pieces. Enjoy! JN
Rimsky- Korsakov — Orchestral Suites [66:37]
Rimsky – Korsakov is remembered today mainly for Sheherazade and for completing and editing the scores of Alexander Borodin and Modest Mussorgsky after their deaths. The fact that these other composers have become more recognised and even hailed as musical geniuses has further eroded Rimsky’s reputation and this is a shame because on the strength of these performances there is no reason for his neglect.
Naxos has collected together his suites from The Snow Maiden, Sadko – Musical Picture, Mlada and Golden Cockerel with Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony delivering energetic and crisp performances superbly recorded in the Benaroya Hall, Seattle.
Listening to these works made me realise how much of his music I knew but had never particularly associated with him and after listening to the disc I was humming some of the melodies for the rest of the day – surely a good indication of quality! It also made me realise how much of an influence he was on his most famous pupil Igor Stravinsky. Great entertainment and perfect for music lovers’ Christmas stockings. JN
Verdi — Il Trovatore [124:52]
Corelli, Price, Dalis, Sereni and Wilderman
Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra
Sony Classical 8697 – 91006 – 2
Il Trovatore comes between Rigoletto premiered in 1851 and La Traviata which premiered in Venice in March 1853. Trovatore received its first performance in Rome in January 1853. These three operas are considered to be Verdi’s most popular trio of works and Trovatore is one of the most difficult to stage successfully owing to the huge vocal demands on the singers.
It has all the ingredients that you expect from mid 19th Century Italian opera – mistaken identity, convents, secret plots, poison and the final twist of familial murder by ignorance and deception — Verdi wrote some of his most famous melodies and arias to keep the audience entertained while the intricacies of the plot unfold.
This performance of the opera from February 1961 offers listeners a chance to hear one of the truly great singers in the role of Leonora – Leontyne Price and also offers a glimpse of another vocal star at the beginning of her career Teresa Stratas, as Ines
The tenorial honours go to Franco Corelli. William Wilderman sings Ferrando with Irene Dalis singing Azucena and Mario Sereni as Count Di Luna, a truly international cast with strong backing from the Met Orchestra and Chorus under the baton of Fausto Cleva who was a favourite of the Met audiences in this repertoire.
One of the joys of listening to live opera is the vitality that the stage gives singers, and whilst there are some sound balances that appear strange, such as the percussion suddenly taking centre sound stage during the chorus ‘Vedi! Le fosche nocturne’, the mono radio broadcast presents the singers in a very faithful light. Well worth investigating if this is one of your favourite operas. JN
Alwyn– Concerto Grossi Nos. 2 and 3; Seven Irish Tunes; Serenade; Moor of Venice Overture [68:23]
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
David Lloyd Jones
It seems that the fate of many British composers is decided not on what they wrote but what they did. Hubert Parry was considered an educationalist first and a composer second and his music was consequently lost to generations of music lovers who never got the chance to hear it until companies like Naxos let his works see the light of day. (Listen to the Fifth Symphony and the Elegy on the Death of Brahms and you will hear what I mean.)
So, it appears with William Alwyn, a composer well known for film music but whose neglect in the concert hall is difficult to understand on the evidence of these works featured here. As well as writing music, Alwyn was an examiner for the Royal Schools of Music and also painted and his obvious talents show through in the orchestral colouring of the Concerto Grossi. The Concerto Grosso no. 2 is a fine piece of English string writing which is as original as any and should be heard much more — the RLPO strings give it a fine performance and the recording is really demonstration sound. The Serenade is a very tuneful and flowing four movement work which I will be returning to again and again as is the Suite for small orchestra – Seven Irish Tunes – similar in a way to Vaughan Williams folk song suite.
The Concerto Grosso No. 3 is written for Woodwind , Brass and Strings and was composed to mark the 20th Anniversary of the death of Henry Wood, founder of the Promenade concerts, and is a fine tribute to a musician Alwyn admired greatly.
The final words must go to the RLPO who play these pieces splendidly throughout, Vassily Petrenko has turned them into one of the finest orchestras in Europe and the sound throughout the disc is of demonstration quality. JN
Audiophilia Recommended New Releases - Update 25/10/11
Lifes Rich Pageant - 25th Anniversary Edition [38 mins + 55 mins]
The recent announcement of an end to REM’s 30-year career must have prompted many, like myself, to reflect on how little of value had resulted from its latter half. During their first decade, though, they were magnificent, releasing a succession of uniquely enigmatic albums. Peaking artistically with 1986’s “Lifes Rich Pageant” and 1987’s “Document” – which finally provided the long awaited hit single, “The One I Love” – greater commercial success still awaited them with 1991’s “Automatic For The People”. This album, though, marked a crucial turning-point, as they abandoned the self-conscious melancholy of the earlier releases, cranked the amps up to 10 and embraced their inner rock stars.
The original vinyl pressing sounded surprisingly good, yet the typically poor mid-‘80s CD transfer means that the remastering of this Anniversary Edition is very welcome; retaining the recording’s ‘garage band’ rough-edged immediacy, while restoring its clarity and dynamics. Included is a bonus disc of 19 demo tracks from the original sessions; interesting to hear how some tracks emerged almost fully-formed while others had a longer and more eventful gestation, but realistically for the die-hard fan only. The album, though, stands as a slice of history; twelve 3-minute nuggets providing a biting (though inevitably cryptic) commentary on Reagan-era America, it is the point at which REM’s power first rose to match their passion. If it lacks the anthemic appeal of “Document”, I still believe it to be a more consistent effort overall, and my fondest memory of a great and innovative band. AF
Czech Music for Strings [64:42]
Janacek Chamber Orchestra
Chandos CHAN 10678 (2011)
It is easy to forget that, along with France and Russia, the music scene in Czechoslovakia during the early decades of the 20th Century was particularly vibrant, as young composers stepped out of the shadows of Smetana and Dvorak. More so than their cosmopolitan colleagues elsewhere, they embraced a sense of national identity, and it is this that makes a collection of Czech music such a coherent concept. Almost by contradiction, then, Leos Janacek stands out as their most individual voice; his music seems to be enjoying greater popularity of late, particularly the operas which found a champion in Charles Mackerras. Featured here is an early work, the ‘Suite for String Orchestra’, and an arrangement (by Richard Tognetti, providing another unlikely Australian connection!) of the First String Quartet from late in his life – sister work to the ‘Intimate Letters’ Quartet, itself a flagrant admission of extra-marital passions.
From the prolific Martinu comes his own arrangement of the Sextet which had won the Coolidge Prize for Composition in 1932, but the most extraordinary story here is that of Pavel Haas. A pupil of Janacek, he was imprisoned in the Terezin concentration camp by the Nazis and wrote his ‘Study’ in 1943 for the camp orchestra, where it received its first performance shortly before his death at Auschwitz in October ’44. The score did not survive, but was reconstructed using an almost full set of parts recovered from Terezin after the war by Karel Ancerl, a fellow inmate who had conducted the orchestra and later found fame with the Czech Philharmonic and Toronto Symphony. More typically ‘modern’ than the other works here, its closing spirit of optimism is poignant indeed.
Where the music allows it, I find myself increasingly preferring the more intimate and transparent sound of a chamber orchestra, and with just a dozen musicians the JCO is small by any standard. The excellent Chandos recording and an airy hall acoustic does full justice to their efforts, resulting in a fascinating and very enjoyable disc. AF
The Virtuoso Clarinet [73:52]
Michael Collins – Clarinet, Piers Lane – Piano
Chandos 10615 (2010)
I have always felt ambiguous towards the clarinet – on the one hand, scarred by my brother’s discordant efforts in our school orchestra; on the other, Mozart’s sublime Clarinet Concerto, perhaps my favourite in the entire classical repertoire. To show just what the instrument is capable of, Michael Collins – certainly one of the premier clarinettists active today – has here assembled a collection of mostly obscure works for the pairing of clarinet and piano. The majority have been written either by or for notable virtuosi, and despite it being an instrumental combination I’ve rarely encountered, only a couple of the pieces are arrangements. One thing is for sure – they represent an utterly brutal test of the player’s dexterity.
The highlight of the disc for many will be, I suspect, Weber’s lovely ‘Grand Duo concertante’; written in 1815, its sound is most reminiscent of early Beethoven with a touch of Mozart, and is a fitting inclusion for the composer most associated with the clarinet (though Crusell, not represented here, might also wish to throw his hat into that ring!). The remaining music is mostly 20th Century; an arrangement of Rachmaninov’s ‘Vocalise’ and fantasies on themes from ‘Carmen’ and ‘La Traviata’ contain familiar melodies, whilst works by Giampieri, Milhaud and Gershwin harness far-flung geographical influences. Australian pianist Piers Lane provides a tasteful and sympathetic accompaniment, but the dazzling trills, leaps and runs of Michael Collins obviously take centre stage. Recording quality is very good – business as usual for Chandos! This disc has certainly expanded my appreciation of what it is possible to play on a clarinet, and is well worth a listen. AF
Bruckner: Symphonies 4, 7, 9
Edition Hansler 4 CD Box Set PH11028
Many musicologists and composers have been fascinated by the final sketches of great masters, we have Beethoven’s 10th realised by Dr Barry Cooper, and Mahler’s 10th by Deryck Cooke and even attempts to complete Schubert’s Unfinished not to mention the most famous reconstruction by Sussmayr of Mozart’s Requiem. The reason Mozart’s Requiem is the only one to really hold a place in the repertoire is that Mozart composed most of it and what was filled in merely completed a nearly finished work.
Bruckner was still working on the 4th movement of his 9th symphony on the day he died and gave instructions that his Te Deum should be performed as a final ending if he didn’t complete it, so it is no surprise that eventually someone would have a go at finishing the finale from Bruckner’s existing sketches, and here it is.
William Carragan has assembled a 22 minute movement from what was left behind on Bruckner’s death and he has created a very realistic sound world based on Bruckner’s style and technique. Of course the real problem is that we just don’t know what Bruckner would have done with many of the passages that Carragan has interweaved together and so we can’t really be sure if this would have been anything like the finale he planned. Carragan has admitted that he has used passages from other works to stitch it all together when no real clue was available to point the way so we can only view it as a possible teaser to what might have been.
The other symphonies that make up this 4 CD set are given very strong performances from the Philharmonie Festiva recorded in the spacious acoustic of the Abteikirche Ebrach. Gerd Schaller has an expansive view of Bruckner which works in this space and the brass playing is particularly fine, however the strings don’t fair so well and some detail is lost even though the strings work hard to cut through the texture. It is the climaxes that lose their power and with a little more articulation these performances could have been sensational. As it stands it is like looking at a great painting from a distance with the detail slightly blurred, but those who like sonorous brass at full throttle won’t be disappointed. JN
Un Ballo in Maschera
Milanov, Peters, Anderson, Peerce, Merrill.
Metropolitan Opera Co, New York
Sony Classical 8697 – 91002 – 2
I don’t think any other Opera company has chronicled it’s last fifty years in sound more successfully than the Met in New York and Sony are now giving us the chance to savour classic performances on CD from these golden years.
Un Ballo in Maschera has had an interesting history, Verdi originally followed the origin of the Play by Eugene Scribe and his protagonist was not the American Governor presented in this performance but was actually the Swedish King Gustavus III.
Censorship at the time prevented Catholic Kings being portrayed in a negative way and when the Vatican threatened to pull the plug on the Opera, Verdi agreed to change the setting and moved the action to Boston and the King became the Governor Riccardo sung in this performance by the full throated tenor Jan Peerce.
To say this is a strong cast is an understatement. Zinka Milanov sings Amelia and Robert Merrill sings Renato both giving a master class in how Verdi should be sung and Marian Anderson singing Ulrica became the first African American to appear at the Met in this production earlier in the 1955 season when this performance was recorded. Just listen to Merrill singing “ Eri tu “ from Act 3 or Milanov singing “ Ma dall’arido stelo divulsa “ from Act 2 and you will see what I mean about style and Anderson gives her rich voice a full workout in “ Zitti…l’incanto non dessi turbare “ in Act 1. Jan Peerce is in fine form and the other cast members include James McCracken as the Judge, Roberta Peters as Oscar and Basses Giorgio Tozzi as Samuel and Norman Scott as Tom.
However the crowning glory of this performance is Dimitri Mitropoulos conducting a taut and energetic orchestra that is alive to Verdi’s driving energy and growing mastery of structure and gives the singers a solid and powerful support to their voices.
Mitropoulos was a superb conductor in Opera and it is sad that he never got the chance to commit more performances like this to disc at the Met, we can enjoy him at his most visionary in his recordings of “Elekta “ and Barbers “Vanessa “ and this is another classic to add to the collection.
The recording is in mono but is clear and resonant and provides plenty of atmosphere in the warm acoustic of the old Metropolitan Opera House still held dear by many New Yorkers to this day.
In 1958 the Paris Opera presented Ballo in its original form and the setting of Boston has fallen into decline as historians have researched more into Verdi’s real intentions for the work but that is no matter, this is first class performance showing just how captivating live opera can really be. JN
Audiophilia Recommended New Releases - Update 05/09/11
Victoria – Requiem Mass 1605 [79:04]
Signum SIGCD248 (2011)
It seems there were some pretty cushy jobs going in the late 16th Century – chief among which must have been the chaplaincy to the Dowager Empress Maria of Spain. Her convent in Madrid provided a life of extraordinary luxury for 32 well-bred nuns and Tomas Luis de Victoria, whose responsibility as Director of Music cannot have overly taxed him. Yet, when the Empress died in 1603, the requiem mass that Victoria provided for her funeral (and published two years later) would prove to be perhaps the crowning jewel of Renaissance polyphony. It is sandwiched here by the two best-known works of another Spanish composer and contemporary of Victoria, Alonso Lobo; the short motet ‘Versa est in luctum’ (itself written for Phillip II’s funeral) and the Lamentations of the Prophet Jeremiah.
Celebrating their tenth anniversary this year, the chamber choir Tenebrae has quickly established an enviable reputation – yet it hardly prepares one for the stunning beauty of the sound they generate here. Larger than most of the specialist ensembles performing this material, their sound is richer and fuller, yet their tuning so impeccable that the purity of tone achieved is truly transporting. The superb acoustic of All Hallows is also behind the magnificent sound of Stile Antico, and its controlled reverberation is used to similarly vivid effect here.
The excellent recording (Signum is a label specialising in vocal music) brings Victoria’s masterpiece to life in dramatic, almost overwhelming fashion. Though Lobo was stuck in the cultural backwater of Seville and lacked Victoria’s many years of experience in Rome, he was taught by the illustrious Guerrero and his ‘Lamentations…’ surprisingly owes a greater debt to the Italian school of Palestrina, its harmonies less dense and complex than those of Victoria. Conversely, the unrestrained chromaticism of ‘Versa est in luctum’ is breathtaking in its beauty. For anyone who is yet to investigate Renaissance music, this is a perfect starting point - and I’ll be surprised if there’s a better Early Music release this year (though, in truth, I frequently am surprised!). AF
Ravel – Complete Solo Piano Music [142:57]
Hyperion CDA67731/2 (2011)
Ravel perhaps stands alone, among the top echelon of composers of virtuoso piano music, in not having been a first rank player himself. Undeniably, though, the solo piano works he produced between 1895 and 1920 are of the highest quality and originality, and immensely demanding of the performer. Described as “a deliberately sarcastic, argumentative and aloof young man”, Ravel was little inclined to slavishly follow the example of his contemporaries during that golden age of French composers. Indeed, it is almost impossible to generalise where Ravel is concerned, except that he is consistently enigmatic – his music runs the range from powerful to playful to meditative to menacing, often in the course of a few bars (‘Alborada del gracioso’, from ‘Miroirs’, is a perfect example!), and his melodies are rarely straightforward. In practice, that constant flow of originality means that it is surprisingly easy to tackle the entire 2 hours and 20 minutes of this collection at a single sitting.
If not the best known, then certainly the most notorious inclusion is the opener, ‘Gaspard de la nuit’; based on the same dark fairytale that had earlier inspired Sibelius, it was Ravel’s deliberate attempt to write the most technically demanding piano piece in existence … though he later confessed that “perhaps I let myself get carried away!” I have elsewhere enthused over Freddy Kempf’s rendition (BIS 1580), which is sparkling, confident and charismatic; Osborne’s is more pensive, evoking a dreamlike reverie shot through with the darker undercurrents emanating from the work’s inspiration. Indeed, I think it’s fair to characterise Osborne’s approach to Ravel as cerebral, informed by intellectual rigour and a rare sensitivity. Having recently made acclaimed recordings of the Rachmaninov and Debussy Preludes – both personal favourites – Osborne once again demonstrates his profound gift for Fin de Siècle music. And there’s not much about recording a Steinway in London’s Henry Wood Hall that Hyperion doesn’t know, so sound quality is predictably fine! AF
Stravinsky/Bartok – The Rite of Spring / Sonata for Two Pianos & Percussion [59:20]
Duo d’Accord & eardrum percussion duo
Genuin 11195 (2011)
Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is notorious for the primal rhythms and wild dynamics that have shocked audiences since its 1913 premiere – and, for the same reasons, made it something of an audiophile potboiler. Having been scored for oversized orchestral forces, the performance here by just four musicians is intriguing; Stravinsky himself penned a (somewhat implausible!) reduction of the Rite for four-handed piano but, by adapting that for piano duo and then restoring percussion parts from the orchestral version, the result is quite unique. This particular combination of instruments, though, is not – Bartok wrote one of his most highly regarded works for it in 1937. For him, the piano (which, of course, employs hammers to strike its strings) was inherently a percussion instrument and, while Balkan folk music provided some of the inspiration for this Sonata, its complex 9/8 metre is worked through all possible mathematical permutations, providing a mildly unsettling experience for the listener.
The revision for piano of the Rite of Spring is essentially a straight transcription or distillation, exactly mapping the original and feeling for me both familiar and new, as it slipped in and out of recognition. The huge orchestral dynamics and dimensionality are gone, of course, though the more intimate setting allows the solo instrumentalists to achieve a similar sense of impact, the tympanis moving plenty of air. The overall effect, I found, was of a more subtle, finely-drawn insight into music that never loses its ability to surprise. The Bartok was equally a pleasing discovery, as I have often struggled with his music in the past yet found this piece strangely engaging. The musicians rise superbly to the extreme demands, their efforts matched by a wonderful recording; this apparently left-field release will win plenty of friends. AF
Albinoni – “Homage to a Spanish Grandee” Opus 10 Concertos [69:15]
Collegium Musicum 90/Standage
Chandos 0769 (2010)
Only rediscovered in the late 1960s, Albinoni’s set of 12 Concertos Opus 10 was composed in 1735, more than a decade after the Opus 9 set previously thought to represent his culmination. Dedicated to the Marquis of Castelan – hence the disc’s title – the rarely recorded Opus 10 cycle (from which eight concertos are presented here) has languished in an obscurity that becomes the more baffling when you hear it. Granted, aspects of their composition were a little old-fashioned for the time, such as the general eschewal of a prominent solo violin in the Vivaldian style; yet they are always interesting, thoroughly enjoyable and present a different Albinoni than I thought I knew! The commonly held opinion of a composer of ravishing adagios and little else is, I admit, not difficult to reach from exposure to Opus 7 and 9, where the allegros often do not linger so long in the memory. Opus 10 reverses that trend and, despite by then being aged in his mid-60s, the energy and panache that Albinoni invests into the quicker of these 3 movement, fast-slow-fast concertos allows them to stand fully alongside, if not surpass the slow.
Violinist Simon Standage has been a leading light of the English period instrument movement since its early days, and the playing of his Collegium Musicum 90 ensemble is truly impressive in its cohesiveness and virtuosity. The recorded sound is excellent too – in fact, I love everything about this release, which only leads me to ask; why, Chandos, could you not have given us the four omitted concertos, too?! AF
Boccherini – Divertimenti Opus 16 Volume 1 [70:58]
Piccolo Concerto Wien
Accent ACC24245 (2011)
Luigi Boccherini, born in Italy and a close contemporary of Joseph Haydn, is among the most enigmatic and unjustly overlooked of composers. A virtuoso cellist in his youth, feted in Paris and establishing a growing reputation as a composer, for reasons never explained he turned his back on the celebrity that awaited him in any of Europe’s great musical capitals in favour of an appointment with a disgraced Prince in rural Spain, where he remained in virtual isolation for the rest of his life. He still managed to come to the attention of the King of Prussia, receiving an appointment as court composer in absentia that yielded some marvellous symphonies, but the set of six Divertimenti Opus 16 (three of which are featured here) were composed in 1773 for his Spanish patron.
Boccherini refused to be bound by the expectations and artistic conventions of the day, so the looser format of the divertimento certainly suited his flair for originality. Scored for an unusual compliment of flute, two violins, viola, two cellos and bass – expressly with one eye on the possibility of later expansion for small orchestra – these works are a fascinating mixture of joie de vivre and instrumental high-jinks from the Baroque, echoes of Haydn’s Sturm und Drang aesthetic, and Boccherini’s own characteristic exploration of tone colours in the subtle interplay between the stringed instruments. Finely played by the period instrumentalists of Piccolo Concerto Wien and very well recorded, I shall certainly be keeping an eye open for Volume 2! AF
Audiophilia Recommended New Releases - Update 10/07/11
Telemann – Trios and Quartets [65:57]
CPO 777441-2 (2011)
I’m not sure why Telemann isn’t more popular with modern audiences. My high school music teacher believed that history had not forgiven him for having the temerity to be offered the role of Kantor in Leipzig ahead of J S Bach … though, as it happened, Telemann’s employer in Hamburg refused to release him and Bach took up the position in 1723, holding it for the rest of his life. I tend to think it has more to do with the fact that he does not have a ‘signature’ work – no Four Seasons, no Water Music or Air on a G-string – to cement him into the popular consciousness. Like his great German contemporaries, Bach and Handel (with both of whom Telemann remained in contact throughout their lives), he was thoroughly familiar with the French and Italian styles and blended them freely through his music. His output bears a similar Germanic undercurrent of elegance and nobility, more obvious when contrasted with the exuberance of the Italians. Like Bach, his ability to play many instruments lent him a particular gift for fully exploiting their distinctive timbral qualities, and he also demonstrates a characteristically German fondness for the complex polyphony we hear in the Brandenburg Concertos, for example.
Chamber music, once the preserve of royal courts, was becoming popular in domestic settings and Telemann’s compositions had a ready market in the cosmopolitan cities around Hamburg. Though several of the pieces featured on this disc are of uncertain date, the three TWV43 quartets were published in 1733 and expressly allowed for performance on either wind or string instruments. The nine musicians of Epoca Barocca opt for the former and it’s a welcome choice; the complete absence of violins and violas is refreshingly unusual for Baroque music, replaced with the rich, characterful timbres of period flutes, bassoons and an oboe. In the slower movements, particularly – and, as he mainly follows the French model of a slow opening, there are plenty of them – Telemann repeatedly fashions moments of exquisitely sonorous loveliness. Beautifully played and excellently recorded, one of those very ‘live’ recordings where you can feel the musicians really working their instruments, this is a very easy recommendation. AF
Dussek – Piano Concertos [66:22]
Andreas Staier – Fortepiano / Concerto Köln
Capriccio 5072 (2011)
While each era of the last few centuries has enshrined its great names into the eternal pantheon of composers, it is well to remember that there were others, perhaps no less meritorious, who came to be omitted. Jan Dussek, born in Bohemia in 1760, lived a colourful life and travelled widely, coming to prominence in the burgeoning London music scene at the end of the Century. Although a feted concert pianist – the first, indeed, to turn his instrument sideways to the audience! – it was as a composer that he drew effusive praise from the visiting Joseph Haydn, and was later to influence Beethoven’s sonata writing. The two Concertos presented here were written in 1793 and 1802, and are joined by an unusual character piece, a programmatic duo for piano and spoken word, lamenting the recently-demised Queen Marie Antoinette, for whom Dussek had regularly performed in the period immediately prior to the French Revolution.
Familiar with Dussek’s reputation but not his music, I’m pleased to confirm that these concertos are thoroughly admirable works, entirely of their time – the earlier reminiscent of Haydn, the latter’s physicality bringing Beethoven to mind, while the disproportionate length of the opening movements even presages the great Romantics. Virtuoso pianistic displays take centre stage, as you’d expect, but the orchestral support is tautly written. Recorded using an 1806 English Broadwood piano, identical to the one that Dussek owned and esteemed as the most powerful of its day (Beethoven too was later to become an enthusiastic Broadwood owner), its sound clearly lacks the body, projection and harmonic brilliance of a modern concert grand; yet it is the sound that the composer had in his head, and I like that. Both Andreas Staier and Concerto Köln are esteemed veterans of the period instrument movement, the orchestra turning in a performance of both sensitivity and high octane dynamics. Recorded in 1992, these performances have been released before, though no mention of that fact (nor any reason for their re-release) appears in the disc’s liner notes; regardless, the excellent sound quality is just another compelling reason to give this a listen. AF
Tallis & Byrd – Cantiones Sacrae 1575 [130:24]
Alamire / David Skinner
Obsidian CD706 (2011)
This is a work I’ve been after for a while, so was an exciting find for me – the first recording of the entire Cantiones Sacrae (‘Sacred Songs’), by the same group of singers, in their original published sequence. Comprising 34 motets, contributed equally by Tallis and his pupil William Byrd (aged 70 and 40 respectively at the time), this was the first major printed collection of music to be published in England; a grand patriotic venture, intended to prove the worth of English music against that emerging from the continent. Sadly, its lack of commercial success brought financial hardship on the composers, and it failed to attract significant attention from overseas.
Yet, there is a still more interesting story behind this work, and it relates to the political and religious turmoil in late Tudor England. As the crown passed from Henry VIII to Edward VI to Mary to Elizabeth, the nation’s official religion thrice switched between Catholicism and Protestantism. Holding the wrong faith at the wrong time could be taken as a sign of treasonous disloyalty, and many lost their lives. Elizabeth’s love of music apparently led her to turn a blind eye to the recusant Catholic leanings of Tallis and, more blatantly, Byrd; the Cantiones Sacrae can thus be seen as an affirmation of loyalty, and perhaps also of tacit gratitude, to their monarch.
Though there is evidence that Byrd struggled, at short notice, to generate sufficient material to meet his quota, this wonderful collection never disappoints and includes such well-loved Tallis works as ‘Salvator mundi’ and the two settings of ‘Te lucis ante terminum’. As usual with historical projects, the liner notes offer an interesting explanation of the performing practices chosen; at a non-technical level, the singing strikes me as a little more lush, less self-consciously ascetic than is often the case with polyphony, even permitting the occasional instance of vibrato! Sung with a voice to a part, the majority of motets employ only 5 or 6 singers, but their tuning is very good and the balance between bass and treble voices excellent. The recording venue’s acoustic is very nice, the recording itself very present and transparent; though, inexplicably, it is also aggressively loud, in the manner of modern pop music (where the ‘loudness wars’ have been well documented). With that proviso, recommended. AF
Audiophilia Recommended New Releases - Update 14/06/11
Mozart – Violin Concertos 3 & 5, Sinfonia Concertante [79:52]
Mozart – Violin Concertos 1, 2 & 4 [72:13]
Richard Tognetti – Violin / Australian Chamber Orchestra
BIS SACD 1754/5 (2010/1)
All five of Mozart’s violin concertos were thought, until very recently, to have been composed during his nineteenth year, 1775; it is unclear why he suddenly immersed himself so energetically in the genre, though doubtless his violinist father did not disapprove. What had equally puzzled musicologists was the dramatic progress in Mozart’s compositional style over that short time … a mystery solved, in part, by the redating of the First Concerto to 1773, making it the earliest of all his instrumental concertos. The first of these two discs, released last year, features the most abidingly popular pair from the set; majestically accomplished and unpredictable works, from the slurred entry of the solo violin in the Third to the raucous ‘alla turca’ episode in the Fifth (a reference to the then exotically fashionable Turkish folk music), and on to its wistfully unresolved ending. The later Sinfonia Concertante (1780) is another much-loved piece, scored for violin and viola soloists and the last that Mozart completed for solo strings. The second disc, recorded a year later, supplies the remaining three violin concertos plus a standalone Rondo and Adagio, with their own catalogue numbers, which seem to have begun life as alternative concerto movements.
The Australian Chamber Orchestra has been lauded as amongst the world’s finest and, on this evidence, that is a modest claim indeed! Using gut strings and (as the dramatic cover photograph attests) standing up to play – both nods to 18th Century authenticity – these are performances of extraordinary brilliance. Tempos are brisk, though not uniquely so. Aided by stunningly good recordings (both discs appear to be equally fine, and that from the CD layer on these hybrid SACDs), tonally rich and spatially vivid, the sense of a living, breathing drama being played out in a real acoustic space is utterly absorbing. Leader and soloist Richard Tognetti may not be the ultimate dry technician, but he is something far more - a great interpreter and performer. While every work here is a thing of joy and beauty, I would single out the performance of the Second Concerto as the most revelatory; it felt like I was hearing it for the first time, such is the electricity coursing through it. Quite simply, none of the many versions of these marvellous works that I own can hold a candle to these - my strongest possible recommendation. AF
Bach – St John Passion [114:47]
Monteverdi Choir / English Baroque Soloists / Gardiner
If John Eliot Gardiner is recognised as the greatest modern champion and exponent of Bach’s choral music, then the accolade is well-earned. The epic global odyssey during the year 2000 that saw him, along with his Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists orchestra, perform all of Bach’s surviving Cantatas on their designated days, has still to be fully released on disc. Indeed, this live recording of the St John Passion, originally broadcast on German radio in 2003, has taken eight years to see the light of day.
The three major choral works by Bach that belong in every collection are the Mass in B Minor and the two Passions, St Matthew and St John. Though the St John is generally considered the lesser of that pair, Gardiner argues persuasively for it in his extensive liner notes; showing how Bach had prepared the ground for its performance on Good Friday 1724 as the ‘central jewel’ of his Cantata cycle, had risked controversy and conflict with the church authorities, reluctantly revised it four times over the following fifteen years before abandoning it and, at the end of his life, boldly revived it in its original form.
I cannot immediately think of any piece of music that stimulates such fervent debate, and polarises opinions so strongly, as the Passions. To comment on a performance is to enter the lion’s den – and, as someone for whom choral music is not first nature, and who secretly believes that you can actually own enough Cantatas, that’s a daunting prospect! What I will say is that Gardiner and his forces always bring something very special to Bach; a delicious delicacy and precision to the playing and phrasing, coupled with a compelling freshness and vitality. Music which has so often (though less so in recent years) been performed in an austere, reverential fashion is here infused with warmth and colour, along with a pacier delivery than most. The recording quality is good, though rendered a little diffuse and uneven in the bass by the resonant church acoustic, while SDG’s now traditional hardback booklet packaging is very classy. I’m sure there will never be a definitive recording of this seminal work but, while I do not claim an extensive survey of the field, I do know that Gardiner is my first choice for any Bach choral music. He has previously recorded the John Passion and, while I have not heard that disc, critical opinion seems unanimous that this new version is superior. This is stirring, dramatic music-making; if that’s what you’re looking for, buy with confidence! AF
Leslie Howard must surely be the most prolific pianist active today; his 100 CD (and still growing!) anthology of Liszt’s piano music recognised in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest recording project undertaken by any artist. His other great passion has been for Russian piano music, with several important premiere performances to his credit, and this is the first recording to offer the coupling of Rachmaninov’s two Piano Sonatas with the original published version of the Second, rather than its later revision. Rachmaninov was famously sensitive to criticism, so it was quite common for him to revisit works that had not been well-received. In the case of these two Sonatas – the First composed in 1907, the Second six years later – the public response to both appears to have been reasonably positive, so it is unclear why the composer quickly resolved to revise the Second; the reaction of contemporary performers to the work’s technical difficulty may have been a factor. When that (significantly shorter) revision did eventually appear in 1931, the original version fell out of currency and has only recently been restored to print – much preferring the original, Howard characterises it as “the last and one of the greatest of the Russian Romantic sonatas”. Ever the tireless musicologist, Howard has also thrown in four little-known miniatures, written by Rachmaninov for his own edification.
Clocking in at close to half an hour each, the Sonatas are large-scale, sprawling works – far removed from the tautly-composed miniatures of the Preludes. Often pensive and reflective, with stormy interludes and a darkly dramatic conclusion, the First is not really conducive to casual listening, its leisurely and unpredictable development rewarding closer attention. The bold opening flourish of the Second Sonata heralds a sunnier, more extrovert and lyrical work. It is clear that Howard is very much at home with this music – certainly, I find his Rachmaninov no less convincing than his Liszt, and compliments obviously can’t come much higher! As regards the recording, let me say only this – I own a lot of solo piano music, and have long agonised over which is the single finest recording. I agonise no more, because this is! A rare overseas venture for Melba, the recording was made at Potton Hall in the UK, a regular venue for Hyperion (and others), so its quality can only be explained by the involvement of star engineer Tony Faulkner. Great packaging sets the seal on another compelling release from this consistently innovative label. AF
Walton and Barber Violin Concertos
Thomas Bowes/Malmo Opera Orchestra/Swensen
Audiophilia full review
Audiophilia Recommended New Releases - Update 17/05/11
Stravinsky – ‘Diversions’ (Music for Violin and Piano) [63:16]
Ray Chen – Violin, Timothy Young – Piano
Melba MR301128 (2010)
Ray Chen is a brilliant young Taiwanese/Australian violinist, whose meteoric rise appears unstoppable. Winner of two major European competitions, with the exclusive use of two Stradivarius instruments, the title of ‘Virtuoso’ attached to his recital disc of solo and accompanied works recently released on Sony might be considered precocious for a 21-year old … though it’s not bragging if you can actually do it! Chen distinguishes himself in a crowded field with a luminous, singing tone and a natural interpreter’s gift.
Stravinsky emerged from a wealth of Russian musical talent born in the closing years of the Nineteenth Century – including Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Medtner and, a little later, Shostakovich – and the works featured here have their genesis through the 1920s and 30s. Not naturally inclined towards writing for this combination of instruments, Stravinsky initially responded to commercial opportunities by producing some transcriptions, mainly adapted from his ballet music; a later friendship with the violinist Samuel Dushkin was to inspire the only original composition here, the Duo Concertante from 1932.
Let me share a confession; of the few recent discs to which I’ve taken a hearty dislike, one was a recording of Stravinsky duos for violin and piano … so my expectations here were not high. Yet, aided by a typically superlative recording from Melba, this performance is both entrancing and utterly gripping. Timothy Young, whose sterling contribution to Melba’s wonderful Volupté disc was noted in last year’s selections, rises to the even greater demands posed by this music, his perfectly weighted dynamics and flawless interweaving of melodic lines the measure of a supreme accompanist. Also relishing the technical challenge, Chen taps into an unexpected source of power and pathos at the heart of these works and delivers a performance of both sensitivity and dazzling, kinetic intensity. This remarkable disc is essential listening, no doubt heralding the emergence of a major new talent. AF
Philippe Rogier – Polychoral Works [72:41]
Magnificat, His Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts/Cave
Linn SACD CKD348 (2011)
The little-known and rarely recorded Philippe Rogier belongs to that impossibly romantic group of Renaissance composers whose details are obscure, their works mainly lost to perpetuity; yet, from a period when life for most was nasty, brutish and short, they have achieved immortality by bequeathing to us music of such affecting beauty that it has defied the ravages of time. Rogier, born in Flanders around 1561, was recruited as a chorister to the Spanish court of Philip II in 1572, appointed chief composer of the Royal Chapel at the age of 25 and died a mere ten years later. Necessarily a prolific writer, at a time when the liturgical calendar demanded a constant supply of new music, only a fifth of his 250 catalogued works have survived; this disc includes a premiere recording of a motet recently discovered in Valladolid Cathedral.
The instrumental accompaniment featured almost throughout this disc (colourfully provided by the period instruments of the wonderfully-monikered ‘His Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts’) will surprise those familiar with the unadorned polyphony of the English and Flemish schools, whose ascetic Protestantism discouraged this. There was a long tradition of accompaniment in Spain and Italy, and despite Rogier’s Flemish roots, it is the polychoral style then emerging from Italy that exerts the strongest influence upon his writing here. He was certainly familiar with the works of Andrea Gabrieli, and Palestrina’s motet Domine in Virtute Tua inspired Rogier’s parody mass of the same name (both are performed here); yet I fancy too that I hear a faint premonition of the great sacred works of Monteverdi, whose monumental Vespers appeared within 15 years of Rogier’s demise.
Magnificat celebrates its 20th anniversary this year; their discography for Linn includes an earlier Rogier recording and a spectacular 1997 performance of Tallis’ vast 40-part Spem in Alium (CKD233) that remains a definitive version of this essential work. Informed by the scholarly rigour of their approach, this performance confirms their place in the very front rank of Early Music practitioners, endowed an even more piquant historical flavour by the collection of mediaeval wind and string instruments that support them. The recording is very good, though the acoustic of the recording venue seems a little dry, and its somewhat distant perspective emphasises the sense of space while robbing it of a certain degree of presence. AF
Mozart / Frauchiger – String Quartets K387 and K421 [56:15 + 77:00]
Telos TLS124 (2011)
Readers are no doubt familiar with Patton’s famous dictum, “the fog of war”. This double disc seems to demonstrate a less well-recognised phenomenon; the fog of international commerce! Drawn to it in my ongoing quest to investigate boutique record labels, the complete lack of information available online for this release was intriguing. It is curiously absent from the Telos website – which is, in any event, entirely in German – and various retailer listings were utterly devoid of detail, with one UK site fancifully (and wildly inaccurately) labelling it as “sonatas arranged for accordion”! Prices varied widely, some consistent with a two-disc release and others at a single disc tariff. On top of all that, I could derive no information at all on Urs Frauchiger or his musical output.
So, the discs arrive and, initially, I’m none the wiser. The booklet is no help, as that is entirely written in German and omits any mention of Frauchiger … though it does (uniquely to my recollection) reproduce the complete printed score of the K421 quartet. One word from the cardboard sleeve – printed entirely in German – finally gave the game away; ‘sprecher’, which I knew to mean ‘speaker’ or ‘announcer’. It turns out that Frauchiger is actually an author, and the second disc contains his lengthy spoken commentary on the K421 work … which is, as you have probably guessed, delivered entirely in German! One final potential trap for the unwary (well, it caught me out); the Casal Quartet hails from Switzerland and is unconnected to Spain’s better-known Casals Quartet (Cuarteto Casals).
Now we’ve set the record straight, I rather doubt you’ve added this to your list for Santa … but all is not lost. Composed around 1782/3, these are the opening pair of the six ‘Haydn’ quartets, published in 1785 and dedicated to Mozart’s esteemed friend, “Papa” Joseph Haydn. This set represents both a homage to the creator of classical string quartet form and, arguably, its perfection; for its closing ‘Dissonance’ quartet K465 even hinted at the very different direction that Beethoven would later take it in, to the consternation of many contemporary listeners! The opening movements of K387 are played at a relaxed pace, every last ounce of sonority wrung from them as the players apparently revel in the sheer beauty of their tone. Only in the closing Allegro does a sense of urgency come to the fore. By contrast, K421 is imbued from the start with a nervous energy, a weightier gravitas replacing the earlier work’s dreaminess, though Mozart strangely chose for its closing Allegretto to bow out with a whimper rather than a bang. The fine recording benefits from a characterful, reverberant church acoustic and a good sense of space, showcasing the gloriously rich, woody tone of the instruments, while the playing of these accomplished musicians is never less than engaging. For all its language-related quirks, this is still a recommendable disc – if you can find it at an appropriate price. AF
Audiophilia Recommended New Releases - Update 18/04/11
I have an abiding fascination with the recorder, born of the sheer implausibility that an instrument made to sound so raucously tuneless by generations of schoolchildren should have had concertos written for it! That it can, conversely, achieve such an entrancingly lovely sonority in skilled hands will come as a shock to many long-suffering parents, just as it once did to me. The recorder was popular with both amateur and professional musicians during the Baroque, its eventual supersession by the transverse flute delayed through religious objection to that instrument’s bacchanalian associations. The more resourceful composers of the time coped with this transition by writing works that could easily be transposed for any of a number of instruments – varieties of flutes, recorders and even the oboe – though, by often failing to clearly indicate a preference, also ensured that years of heated debate amongst musicologists would ensue! The core of this disc is four sinfonias for recorder by Alessandro Scarlatti, from a little-known set composed in 1715, to which is added Vivaldi’s famous C minor recorder concerto, an oboe concerto from Albinoni’s Opus 9 and a violin concerto by Torelli.
For quite some time, my favourite example of Baroque recorder concertos has been a Linn recording by Pamela Thorby (CKD217), which I had not expected to hear surpassed. By good fortune, both discs feature the same Vivaldi concerto … on which basis I can state that the sound quality of this all-Canadian effort easily surpasses the Linn disc, while the musicianship surrenders nothing to it either. This is another in a line of spectacularly good recordings; the textural and sonic transparency achieved by this small ensemble – just eight musicians, playing period instruments – is captivating, as is the inspired choice of programme. This is my first brush with the Atma Classique label, and I hope the next won’t be too long in coming! An automatic first choice for anyone intrigued by this area of the Baroque repertoire. AF
Piano Quartets by Mozart, Hummel & Beethoven [70:03]
Ames Piano Quartet
Sono Luminus DSL-92120 (2011)
The modern constitution of the piano quartet – piano plus violin, viola and cello – traces its lineage right back to Mozart, though the Classical era left us with few contributions to the repertoire. The Mozart quartet is adapted from an original 1784 Quintet for piano and winds (in a roughly contemporary arrangement, though it is unclear whether the composer himself had any involvement); inspired by that Quintet to write his own in 1797, the young Beethoven also provided an arrangement for piano quartet (the only one he ever published). Hummel will be less familiar to many readers, but as Haydn’s nominated successor at Esterhazy and a young protégé of Mozart’s, he is a significant figure whose presence lends an appropriate symmetry to this programme. Again, though, his piano quartet is the only example from his maturity. Its unusual two-movement form, and (to this writer) strong impression of a piano concerto in miniature, clearly distinguish it from the more conventional chamber music of the three-movement works; Mozart’s being wholly characteristic of his later period, Beethoven’s also quite typical of the sunnier output of his earlier years.
The lushness of string tone apparent from the disc’s opening bars, together with a notably relaxed approach, struck me immediately as ‘old-fashioned’ – a reflection of how far period instrument sound and practice has intruded into Classical era performance. Within a couple of minutes, that impression had vanished, through a combination of superb recorded sound and the lauded Ames Quartet’s easy familiarity. With most recordings of piano quartets being made by a string trio with a pianist drafted in, the Ames Quartet is a rarity for being permanent – and it shows! If the overall style of these works is broadly familiar to us, the special sonority brought to them by the piano quartet is not, giving this disc a clearly-defined appeal in a crowded marketplace. Special kudos goes to Sono Luminus for including a photo of the recording session in their excellent liner notes, thus demonstrating the precise spatial arrangement used to achieve the recording’s glorious balance while also proving how faithfully that dimensionality has been captured on the disc. High fidelity indeed! AF
Haydn – Cello Concertos [72:07]
Accademia d’Archi Bolzano / Wen-Sinn Yang
OEHMS OC782 (2011)
I often wonder whether Joseph Haydn gets all of the attention he so richly deserves. Having been immediately preceded and succeeded by the brightest stars in history’s musical firmament doesn’t help his cause, while the sheer volume of his output can make it difficult for newcomers to his music to know where to start. Of cello concertos, though, he composed only two and, while previously unknown to me, they are important works in the cello repertoire; the First a piece from his early career, written before 1765 and better known today than the Second, composed twenty years later and among the most technically challenging of its type. Also included for good measure is Haydn’s Violin Concerto No. 4, with the violin part dropped an octave to allow performance on the cello.
In the disc’s notes, Swiss cellist Wen-Sinn Yang explains the decision to opt for a more traditional, classically elegant approach to the performance, eschewing the livelier tempos typical of modern authenticist practice. While the latter would be my usual preference for concertos from this period, when played as well as they are here I am quite comfortable with either philosophy. The notes also shed light on another point I’d picked up; the solo cello’s sound is a little diffuse, lacking the degree of prominence that might be expected. It turns out that, in the absence of a conductor, Yang faced the orchestra to play, causing that observed loss of focus though fortunately without diminishing his effective presence. The recording is good rather than outstanding, but overall this is lovely music – the First concerto a particularly attractive example of early Classical form emerging from its Baroque roots – and a very worthwhile addition to my collection. AF
Gustav Holst – The Planets
Peter Oundjian/Toronto Symphony Orchestra
Audiophilia full review link
Essential Purcell — The King’s Consort/Robert King
Audiophilia full review link
Audiophilia Recommended New Releases - Update 13/03/11
Vivaldi – Ottone in villa [134:00]
Il Giardino Armonico / Antonini
Naive OP30493 (2010)
Though famed (notorious, even) for his output of more than 600 concertos, the rediscovery of Vivaldi’s music in the 20th Century has left us with a skewed impression; for the operas that occupied him over the major part of his career have languished in almost total obscurity. Naive are now ten years into an ambitious project to record the 450 works comprising Vivaldi’s personal library of autograph scores, including fifteen operas, which have been preserved in Turin since the 1920s but remained largely unheard. From previous experience, I can happily confirm that the results have been spectacular!
Opera was typically the most lucrative avenue open to Baroque composers; Handel had thrown himself into it with aplomb while still a teenager, enjoying the patronage of Italian nobility, so it is surprising that Ottone in villa, Vivaldi’s first opera, appeared only in 1713, his thirty-sixth year. The dramatic plot is typically overwrought – a love quadrangle, lent additional spice by an erotically ambiguous twist that had fascinated lascivious theatregoers since Shakespeare’s time; one of the protagonists is a woman disguised as a man, here taking revenge on her infelicitous lover by competing for the affections of his new flame! If that all seems a bit complicated, don’t worry; so ravishingly, disarmingly lovely are the arias that such details are soon forgotten.
For those unfamiliar with the specific genre of Baroque opera, I would crudely represent it as somewhat less theatrical and voice-dominated than it would later become; the small orchestra (typically only a dozen or so musicians in these authentic recreations) making a sturdy contribution and lending a reassuringly familiar Baroque sound, while offering the option of a very intimate recorded perspective (which Naive uses here). Hence, those who are not instinctively drawn to 19th Century opera may well still find this earlier style accessible and enjoyable. The 2006 release of Tito Manlio from this series has long been a benchmark for me; a breathtakingly beautiful performance, and possibly the single finest commercial recording I own. To say that Ottone in villa does not quite reach that celestial plane is hardly to damn it with faint praise, then – the justly famed Il Giardino Armonico play sublimely, the recording is spectacularly good and the music is simply gorgeous. My only faint reservation is that, in a work dominated by its three soprano roles (to a single mezzo and tenor), a little more natural contrast between those voices would have been welcome at times. Make no mistake, though – at least one of these recordings belongs in every collection! AF
Viaggio a Venezia (‘Journey to Venice’) [72:16]
I Virtuosi Delle Muse / Stefano Molardi
Divox CDX-70602 (2010)
Just as Florence was the epicentre of Renaissance art, so Venice stood at the crossroads of Baroque music. This disc combines works from three groups of composers – those born and bred in La Serenissima (Albinoni, Caldara and Marcello … Vivaldi an obvious omission); other Italians who spent extended periods of their careers there (Porpora, Gasparini); and foreigners who drew inspiration and success from their time in the city (Handel, Hasse). The motivation behind the selection of music is less clear; an eclectic mix of concerti, operatic sinfonias/overtures and other fragments, almost all of it relatively obscure. This is a good thing – avoiding the temptation to churn out another “greatest hits” type compilation, instead a diverse range of sources and styles have been melded into a very cohesive whole; one that encourages and rewards repeated listening. For me, a particular treat is the inclusion of two trio sonatas by Porpora, whose instrumental compositions stand very much in the shadow of his operatic success, here presented in a wonderful orchestral adaptation.
The combination of a small, audiophile-oriented European label and a youthful, hardcore period instrument ensemble (particularly one from Italy!) is generally a successful formula, and this is no exception. I’ve not encountered Divox before, and the website was unenlightening, but their hi-tech 24/192 recording process has resulted in superb sound quality from this CD, bringing the richness of tonal colour and texture from these antique instruments to the fore with startling presence. I Virtuosi Delle Muse play with fire and passion, and including the little-known tenor viola in their ranks gives the sound a gorgeously rich, weighty ‘brownness’! This is joyously uninhibited music-making, an irresistible 70-minute celebration of the Baroque. AF
Revival of the Fittest [55:44]
Eric Alexander, tenor sax
High Note HCD 7205
Audiophilia full review link
Audiophilia Recommended New Releases - Update 26/02/11
Melbourne Guitar Quartet - Toccata [52:09]
It is always exciting to come across a disc that’s completely unlike anything you’ve heard before! The Melbourne Guitar Quartet have championed a new concept, playing a range of instruments from the “guitar family” – bass, baritone, standard, treble and octave classical guitars – to achieve the rich, balanced sonority of a string quartet. So sumptuous and intuitively satisfying is the result that it’s impossible to comprehend why nobody else has done it! More remarkable still is the extraordinary imagination of their largely self-penned arrangements; Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor for organ (if you think you don’t know it, you do – the description of “a summons from a mythological realm” is apt indeed!), a Vivaldi concerto for 2 violins, Walton’s ‘Five Bagatelles’ for solo guitar and Westlake’s ‘Omphalo Centric Lecture’ for percussion quartet all find a sparkling new incarnation here.
The wonderfully natural, blisteringly dynamic and spatially vivid recording is of absolute demonstration quality – impressive for a self-financed effort. It lays bare the Quartet’s marvellous playing; electrifying one moment, tender the next, they find exquisite new sonorities in the most unexpected places! This disc is a wonderful reminder of music’s unfailing ability to surprise, captivate and delight … and a stunning aural treat in any capable system. AF
MGQ YouTube clip
Tchaikovsky – Piano Concertos, Concert Fantasia [141:10]
Stephen Hough – Piano, Minnesota Orchestra/Vӓnskӓ
Hyperion CDA67711/2 (2010)
After some 20 years, Hyperion’s sprawling “The Romantic Piano Concertos” series reaches its 50th edition. Having concentrated largely on reviving obscure works and composers, Tchaikovsky was not the most obvious subject for this landmark release; yet, while his First Piano Concerto (completed in 1875 and, surprisingly, the first attempt by any Russian composer at this genre) is among the most famous in the whole repertoire, how many are familiar with the Second or Third, or the Concert Fantasia? All are included in this complete 2-CD collection of his works for piano and orchestra.
Stephen Hough is a phenomenal artist – writer, performer and composer – whose 2002 recording of Saint-Saëns’ complete works for Piano and Orchestra (Hyperion CDA67331) was voted the finest classical recording of the last 30 years by readers of the London Times. Likewise, his playing in these live recordings is magnificent; effortless virtuosity coupled with an authoritative intellectualism that is completely convincing, even when he takes the imposing opening to the First Concerto at a faster clip than is usual. The Second Concerto is a large and well-proportioned work that would clearly be much better known were it not in the shadow of the First. Tchaikovsky considered it too long and asked his pupil, Siloti, to make some cuts. Though unhappy with the result, he never managed to correct it and the work was mistakenly published (posthumously) with Siloti’s 2nd movement; in typical Hough fashion, this recording includes both the original and revised movements, plus the pianist’s own proposed resolution! The unfinished Third Concerto comprises only a single movement, a rejected draft for the Sixth Symphony whose reworking fails to give the piano its due degree of prominence. The two-movement Concert Fantasia almost defies description except as a virtuoso showpiece, dominated by lengthy piano cadenzas.
What should have been a really excellent release is marred by uneven sound quality, suggesting a recording edited together from a number of live performances. The orchestral sound is, at worst, distant and boomy with a wiry string tone and, while it improves somewhat on the second disc, is never to the high standard I expect from Hyperion. Certainly still recommendable overall, though. AF
Haydn – Piano Trios (‘The Heart of Invention’) [64:33]
Trio Goya: Kati Debretzeni – Violin / Maggie Cole – Fortepiano / Sebastian Comberti – Cello
Chandos 0771 (2010)
In response to the celebrity accorded him on his second visit to London in 1794, Haydn was looking to write new music with commercial potential; appealing both to amateur musicians and to his aristocratic patrons. Piano trios were much in vogue at the time and, as had been the case with the string quartet, Haydn was primarily responsible for establishing and defining this instrumental form – even producing successful trio arrangements of some of his popular orchestral works. These late compositions reveal the piano trio at the pinnacle of its sophistication, making such an impression upon the young Beethoven (a pupil of Haydn’s in Vienna between the two London trips) that his own Opus 1 was three piano trios! Yet they are certainly an underappreciated part of Haydn’s vast repertoire.
What immediately marks this recording out is the use of a fortepiano; the thinking behind this choice is not elucidated, though it endows the music an entirely different balance and tonal patina than the more common performance on piano, and merits hearing on that basis alone. The quality of playing from these three top-notch recitalists (I have previously singled out Kati Debretzini’s almost super-human efforts as leader of the English Baroque Soloists!) is all you’d expect, while the excellent studio recording, almost devoid of reverberation, lends the sound an impressively spartan clarity that suits it well. AF
Beethoven — Symphonies 4, 5 and 6
Christian Thielemann/Vienna Philharmonic
Unitel/CMajor — 3 DVDs
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Audiophilia Recommended New Releases - Update 13/02/11
Handel – Concerti Grossi Opus 6
Avison Ensemble, Linn CKD362 [160:38] (2010)
Handel – Concerti Grossi Opus 6
Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, ABC Classics 4763436 [154:51] (2009)
I recall, many years ago, reading a comment by an 18th Century writer (Charles Burney, perhaps?) which extensive Googling has failed to uncover, so I’ll have to paraphrase; the gist of it was that if all the music in the world except the “Great Twelve” were lost, then the loss could be borne – but the tragedy of losing the Great Twelve alone would be unimaginable. Such was the esteem in which Handel’s contemporaries held his Opus 6 Concerti Grossi (“Grand Concertos”), composed during a single month in 1739. Seen as both a direct tribute to Corelli’s earlier Opus 6 set – modelling their then old-fashioned multi-movement structure, scoring for strings only and even using the same opus number – and an attempt to emulate their commercial success with the English public, Handel has unquestionably left us with one of the crowning jewels of the Baroque. I was fortunate that two new recordings came my way within weeks of each other.
The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s recording is unusual in placing the concerti out of their numbered sequence; an artistically valid approach, given that they were never intended to be performed in that way, which has had the fortuitous (and possibly unique) outcome of allowing the work to be fitted onto two discs instead of the usual three. This also illustrates how performance practice has changed; a 20-year old recording I own (by an obscure East European band) runs some 25 minutes longer! Timings are not universally quick, though, and there is no impression of undue haste. Indeed, more often it is the (UK-based) Avison Ensemble’s recording that gives the greater impression of pace and pent-up energy. I feel there is a weight of expectation on any English artist recording Handel – that the music be imbued with an overriding sense of grandeur and nobility – and the ABO clearly feel the greater freedom to take a less literal approach to the written score, including improvising their own cadenzas. What I found most fascinating, then, was the way the Avisons manage to make the music simultaneously noble and imposing, yet also achingly beautiful and pulsating with energy and life. The precision of their ensemble playing is breathtaking, their interpretations almost impossibly stylish. The ABO’s rendition, as fine as it is, cannot compete with the turbocharged intensity of the Avisons’ playing, still less with the fabulous recorded sound of Linn’s hybrid SACDs. The quad-width wraparound packaging that Linn use can be a bit of a handful, though its rendering of details from a London-period Canaletto is extremely classy. The ‘unique’ aesthetic of the Australian recording’s artwork I shall allow to pass without comment!
The Avison Ensemble have caused me to hear these familiar works afresh. I had not realised before the extent to which, by incorporating so many influences old and new, Handel created a set of concertos that serve as the ultimate almanac of a century’s musical achievement, more effectively than any other work I know. Rarely have I felt so enthusiastic about a new recording – if you buy only one all year, make it this one! AF
Debussy / Ravel – String Quartets [72:26]
Hyperion CDA67759 (2010)
Amidst the explosion of French music in the closing three decades of the Nineteenth Century (think also Franck, Fauré, Saint-Saëns, d’Indy), string quartets were in conspicuously short supply. Perhaps the giant shadow of the late Beethoven quartets was to blame … yet, despite his relative inexperience, Debussy was not to be intimidated. The reaction of his contemporaries after the 1893 premiere of this work was divided; certainly, the free-ranging and often leisurely style in which he develops his themes lacks classical form, though modern ears are much better prepared for this. Ravel was a close friend of Debussy and his own quartet, composed some ten years later, has a somewhat similar feel and atmosphere – though I think it’s fair to describe it as a more intense and technically complex piece. Ravel’s Violin Sonata No. 2 is also included, its central ‘Blues’ movement a surprising homage to the early American jazz then gripping post-war Paris. The much-awarded Dante Quartet play magnificently, and the recorded sound is to Hyperion’s usual high standard. AF
Mozart — The Piano Sonatas
Robert Silverman, piano
IsoMike, 726441-55602-8 — 7 discs
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New Schubert: Works for Flute & Strings
Robert Stallman, flute
Bogner’s Café, BOCA-103
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Richard Strauss – Eine Alpensinfonie
Bernard Haitink/London Symphony Orchestra
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Ralph Vaughan Williams — Symphony Nos. 4 & 5
Peter Oundjian/Toronto Symphony Orchestra
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The Complete Beethoven Piano Sonatas
Peter Takács, piano
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Berlioz — Harold in Italy
Vladimir Ashkenazy/Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra
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Tchaikovsky — Violin Concerto
Hilary Hahn, violin
Vasily Petrenko/Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
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Shostakovich — Symphony No. 10
Vasily Petrenko/Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
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