[The CD title is linked to our affiliate, Amazon.com - Ed]
This post will updated regularly through the year. Please check back often, or, even better, subscribe.
Link to 2011 recommendations.
Audiophilia Recommended New Releases - Update 19/11/12
With the Festive Season almost upon us, this month’s update concentrates on solving those thorny gift buying dilemmas; with discs that will make ideal gifts for family, friends … and even yourself!
Wagner – Der Ring Des Nibelung (Highlights) [154:25]
State Opera of South Australia / Adelaide Symphony Orchestra / Fisch
Melba MR301133/4 (2012)
Even those of us who know little about opera can hardly fail to be awestruck by the epic scope of the vision behind Wagner’s “Ring Cycle”, comprising four individual operas and some 15 hours of music. Created over the period from 1848 to 1874, its storyline blends plot elements from many different mythological and religious traditions with threads of a radical new psychology, all of which placed Wagner at the cutting edge of late 19th Century thought. This complete 2004 performance in Adelaide, South Australia, was the first ever to be recorded in high-resolution DSD for (multi-channel) SACD release – an extraordinary feat for a recording label that was then in its infancy. Though it took until 2007 for the four operas to be individually released, the acclaim from reviewers internationally for both the sound quality and the performance has been effusive.
What, then, are we to make of this 2-SACD highlights selection? Well, echoing the style of the original releases, it is beautifully presented in a very high quality, 127-page hardback booklet format (the majority of which is consumed by libretti and performer bios). Each opera contributes between 20 and 50 minutes of music, in its original sequence and typically in whole scenes so that awkward editing is almost entirely absent. Hence, even the most ardent Ring purists will find nothing to cause offence, as the effect is of a shortened journey over the original terrain, a coherent miniaturisation that takes no liberties with the original. And yes, ‘Apocalypse Now’ fans, “Ride of the Valkyries” is included!
The recording quality is exceptional; vast orchestral forces are arrayed right across the rear of the acoustic space, yet not the tiniest detail or nuance is lost. Singers move clearly around the stage, instrumental colours are vivid and dynamics often startling … the sensation of being there in the audience is palpable, and all this from the stereo CD layer of these surround-sound SACDs. Whilst I own Melba’s culminating recording of the four originals, “Gotterdammerung”, its 4-hour duration and glacial rate of progress always proved too much for me. I suspect that the great majority of casual listeners will join me in finding these highlights a more accessible gateway to the Ring Cycle’s delights. Furthermore, the sheer quality of the packaging and recording, plus its keen price, suggest this as the nicest thing that any music lover could find in their stocking this Xmas! AF
Nicola Benedetti – violin / Scottish Chamber Orchestra / Curnyn
Decca 4764342 (2011)
With the best will in the world, this one looked every inch a trainwreck! First up, you’ve got a loosely-themed compilation of Italian baroque violin music, a commodity with which the world is hardly under-supplied. From the glossy CD booklet that presents more like a fashion shoot, to the gorgeous young violinist with no background in this repertoire and an orchestra that seems equally unqualified, it bore all the hallmarks of a cynical marketing exercise. The result, though, is very likeable. While the predominantly Vivaldian program includes predictable violin showpieces – “Summer” from the Four Seasons and Tartini’s “Devil’s Trill” – there are some surprising inclusions also, like a Tartini concerto and arrangements of a couple of Vivaldi operatic arias. Ms Benedetti’s playing is technically accomplished, with a wonderful rich tone, and demonstrates a real feeling for this music, having benefitted from mentoring by Rachel Podger in baroque technique. The SCO, augmented by harpsichord and lute, lacks the earthy tonality and heightened intensity of period instrument ensembles yet provides solid support, including a particularly kinetic “Summer”.
The recording is good, though lacking some atmosphere and bottom-end weight. Overall, it’s hard to imagine anyone, aficionado and neophyte alike, failing to derive enjoyment from this lovely, undemanding music – yet it was my daughter’s reaction to the disc that got me thinking. Fascinated by the ‘60s chic photography, her usual resistance to “Dad’s classical rubbish” gave way to a healthy curiosity. If you’re faced with the unenviable task of buying for teenagers at Xmas, this could be the perfect opportunity to pique their interest in classical music. AF
Beethoven – Symphony No. 3 ‘Eroica’ [67:16]
Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela / Dudamel
DG 4790250 (2012)
With his youthful vitality, winning smile and enviable mop of curly hair – not to mention the heart-warming story of young musicians plucked from poverty and moulded into a top class orchestra – Gustavo Dudamel has become one of classical music’s best-liked and most recognisable figures. His recorded output has been focussed on core repertoire – Stravinsky’s ‘Rite’ and Tchaikovsky’s 5th spring to mind – but the orchestra (now without “Youth” in its title) has always had a special relationship with Beethoven and, having already recorded the 5th and 7th Symphonies, the ‘Eroica’ is a welcome choice to join them.
Completed in 1804, the ‘Eroica’ was inspired by admiration for what appeared to be the libertarian triumphs of Napoleon, though Beethoven angrily removed the original dedication when Napoleon declared himself Emperor, reframing the work as a paen to heroism generally. It was a work on a scale previously unachieved (though certainly hinted at by Haydn in his ‘Creation’ oratorio) and marked a turning point in the history of art, often seen as the start of the ‘Romantic’ movement that flourished later in the century; the decisive moment at which the composer ceased to look externally for his inspiration and allowed the music to serve as a vehicle for expressing his own emotions. It is something we take for granted today, but must have been shocking to contemporary audiences. The well-chosen companion pieces are Beethoven’s earlier ‘Prometheus’ Overture, which lent a theme to the Symphony’s finale, and the later ‘Egmont’ Overture, another powerful reflection on heroism.
Compared to the jaw-dropping version in La Chambre Philharmonique’s recent boxed set (Naive V5258, reviewed previously), whose movement timings are substantially quicker, this recording must be seen as a ‘conventional’ take on the Third, albeit a very good one. There is an appealing sense of forward momentum, while the colours of woodwind and brass shine through very clearly. The recording is weighty, dynamic and well-balanced, though lacking in the depth perspective. The epic quality of this music, and the trademark accessibility of Dudamel’s interpretation, determines its broad suitability as a gift – plus, as DG’s marketers are well aware, the fact that no woman of a certain age will be able to resist that face beaming out of the CD case! AF
Audiophilia Recommended New Releases - Update 5/10/12
Three absloute gems from harmonia mundi crossed the desk this week. All three highlight music by Schubert and are warmly recomended.
Schubert – String Quartets Nos.10 & 15 [65:29]
harmonia mundi 902121 (2012)
This Spanish-based quartet has many prizes under its collective belt since inception in 1997. Like many modern quartets such as Belcea, St. Lawrence, etc, they play with absolute precision and flawless intonation. Older quartets such as Guarneri, Amadeus and Lindsay miss some of the modern flair for perfect intonation, but often times they get the ‘music’ just right. Happily, the Casals are highly musical, too.
On this beautifully recorded disc they play two Schubert quartets, the youthful 10th and posthumously published 15th. Both are supremely elegant works and deserve as much fame as the famous 14th Quartet, ‘Death and the Maiden’.
The Casals Quartet play both works with finesse and with unfussy interpretations. Slight hesitations here, a surge forward there. All perfectly in service to this great music. AK
Schubert – String Quintet Op. 163 [52:29]
Arcanto Quartett | Olivier Marron
harmonia mundi (2012)
Where do all these amazing string quartets come from? The above review highlights the wonderful Casals, now more Schubert with the equally wonderful Arcanto Quartet. The Berlin-based quartet is joined on this occasion by Olivier Marron on second cello. And, you know what that means. Schubert’s incredible String Quintet.
As one of the most sublime pieces of chamber music, any group tackling it must be of the highest technical and musical standards. I have two DGG recordings, Melos Quartet of Stuttgart and the famous Amadeus reading. Both are wonderful. And, the new Arcanto CD matches both in recording and musicality.
The Arcantos have a warm and beautifully blended sound, perfect for this piece. It’s a very silky performance — very tactile. And, then, they thrust forward with great passion. It left this listener quite breathless.
So, to the heart of the matter. The second movement, Adagio. Benjamin Britten stated that it was the most beautiful single piece of music ever written. And, on this evidence he may well be right. Yes, this performance is that good. AK
Schubert – Piano Sonata D845, Wanderer Fantasy
Paul Lewis, piano
harmonia mundi (2012)
Bless the English. They have difficulty producing world class instrumental soloists (a truckload of excellent ones) and have not produced a master on the piano since Solomon.
That said, Liverpudlian Paul Lewis is making a lot of noise in the musical world for his performances of Beethoven and Schubert. And this harmonia mundi CD offers no doubt to his stature as an interpreter of the piano works of Schubert. I have not heard Volume 1 in the series (I will be hearing Lewis in concert later this month and will report back on Audiophilia), but Volume 2 is a beauty.
Lewis has a dynamic style and technique to burn. His Beethoven Concerto series at the 2012 BBC Proms was testament to his live chops. He has a lovely touch (listen to the Bb Major Impromptu — exquisite) and knows how to build phrases which he does to beguiling and dramatic effect in the classical phrasing of Schubert’s music.
As we go back to master pianists, Lewis is up against Gieseking, Kempff, Argerich, Zimmermann, Brendel, Pollini, and many others. Not a Brit among them. But, he does hold his own for one so young (39 is young for maturing artist) in comparison with many of the younger pianists today. He has great potential. So, in the here and now, why not try Lewis’ Schubert and hear a wonderful pianist as he grows into maturity? AK
When considering great symphonists, the first composers that come to mind might be Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Brahms … but probably not Haydn, which is strange as he not only firmly established the four-movement format that served as a model for his successors, but his 104 published symphonies easily outnumber the combined output of all those other luminaries. For the newcomer, two sets represent the pinnacle of Haydn’s oeuvre and an ideal starting point; the twelve London Symphonies (93-104) and the six Paris Symphonies.
Pre-revolutionary Paris was the musical capital of Europe, and Haydn’s immense popularity there lead in 1785 to the commissioning of these works, for a sum of money unprecedented at the time; composed through 1785/6, they were first performed in 1787. Then, as now, number 85 quickly assumed primacy in the public’s affection and, having been identified as the favourite of Marie Antoinette, soon gained its nickname of “The Queen”. It is, though, only the brightest of a cluster of jewels, as the quality of all six works is universally high – a point made most emphatically by this recording.
Canada’s Tafelmusik is among the world’s most revered period instrument orchestras and, while generally associated with music from an earlier era, it is still the case that their size and constituency is similar to the orchestra for which Haydn composed at the Esterhazy palace (though the forces available in Paris were certainly greater). Distinctively different in quality – and, to my ear, far preferable – to a modern symphony orchestra rendition, my previous reference was Nicolas Harnoncourt’s 2004 set with Concertus Musicus Wien. Bruno Weil’s tempos are consistently faster and boast that rare ‘coiled spring’ dynamism which sets the pulse racing and makes the performance irresistibly engaging. The orchestral balance and sheer fidelity of this recording (originally released by Sony in 1994) is also clearly superior.
Tafelmusik recently launched their own label to restore some classic back-catalogue to the market, and those of us who missed this spectacular release first time around can feel very fortunate that they did. AF
The Romantic Clarinet [63:23]
Paul Dean – Clarinet, Stephen Emmerson - Piano
Melba MR301138 (2012)
Just as with Mozart before him, it was only in his final years that Brahms wrote music to showcase the clarinet; a trio, a quintet, and the two Opus 120 sonatas for clarinet and piano featured on this disc, with which he bade a final farewell to chamber music. He was a man in his 60s, keenly aware of the passing of youth and impending mortality (just three years away), of taciturn nature, whose entire adult life had been spent in a painfully unrequited love affair with the widow of his friend, Robert Schumann. All of these conflicting emotions – anger, regret, tenderness and resignation – boil over in these two wonderful sonatas. Also featured are transcriptions by Paul Dean of three Brahms songs, composed around 1870 (which, not untypically, give vent to his feelings for Clara Schumann), plus Robert Schumann’s “Three Fantasy Pieces” Op73 from 1851. Less dark, perhaps more conventionally ‘Romantic’ than the Brahms sonatas, it is certainly not impossible to imagine Brahms having composed them at an earlier time in his life.
I have enjoyed Martin Fröst’s recording of the two Brahms sonatas (BIS 1353) for some years, youthfully fast-paced and overtly virtuosic as it is. Paul Dean (brother of famous violist and composer Brett Dean, as I’m sure he’s sick of being reminded) and Stephen Emmerson, both pillars of the Australian musical establishment, have seen a few more summers between them and give a more measured performance of greater contrast and emotional depth. Should a clincher be needed, Melba’s sound quality is clearly superior, rich-toned and very natural sounding – I don’t know how they keep doing it, but they do! AF
Telemann – The Autograph Scores [79:18]
Collegium Musicum 90 / Simon Standage
Chandos 0787 (Download) (2012)
Autograph scores of ancient music have always held a special allure, not least because they are free of the errors often introduced by the copyists who prepared music for performance or publication. Handel, Bach and Vivaldi left a substantial inventory of autographs yet, of all Telemann’s vast corpus of instrumental compositions, a mere eighteen autograph scores are known to survive – half of them very late works passed down to his grandson. This disc takes three pieces from that collection, written for the Landgrave of Darmstadt during the 1760s, and adds two more from earlier in his career.
The backbone of the recording is three Suites with Ouverture in the French style; their grand introductions, followed by a variety of movements based on the rhythms of courtly dances and framed by the rich tonal colour of flutes, bassoons and horns, draw unmistakeable parallels to Bach’s four Orchestral Suites. Telemann had become familiar with French music early in his career and, for me, is always at his most compelling when employing wind instruments in the ensemble. If he is considered less extrovert than many of his rivals in the high Baroque, the ‘La Tempête’ movement which concludes the first Suite conjures up a storm as wild and elemental as anything that Vivaldi penned … and this from a man in his 80s!
My admiration for Simon Standage’s Collegium Musicum 90 continues to grow with each new disc (especially their wonderful recent recording of Albinoni’s Opus 10 (CHAN0769)). I have often categorised period instrument performances of Baroque music as either stylish or exciting, but no other ensemble I know of has so skilfully occupied the middle ground by exemplifying both ideals simultaneously. Chandos were kind enough to provide both their CD-rez download and the Hi-rez 24/96 for comparison – and while the standard download was unquestionably very fine sounding, Hi-rez offered a sufficient degree of extra focus, definition and sense of solidity (on the playback equipment available to me, YMMV) to easily justify the additional cost. If your collection would benefit from some superbly played and finely recorded Telemann – and I suspect it would! – then this generously-filled disc is a great starting point. AF
Audiophilia Recommended New Releases - Update 28/7/12
Vivaldi – Trio Sonatas Opus 1 [60:04]
Naive OP30535 (2012)
Although released as the 50th volume of Naive’s extraordinary project to record all 450 of the autograph manuscripts from Vivaldi’s personal collection of scores, the Opus 1 sonatas do not actually number amongst them … so this particular recording is really an appendix to that grand endeavour. When first published in 1705 (or possibly 1703), Vivaldi was joining his Venetian rivals – Albinoni, Caldara and Gentili – in offering a personal vision of the Trio Sonata form that had been defined so emphatically over the preceding two decades by the Roman composer, Corelli, culminating in his Opus 5 of 1700. Though not the best known of the Baroque masters today, Corelli’s influence in shaping the high Baroque and establishing the supremacy of Italian music throughout Northern Europe is completely pre-eminent. The challenge thrown out by these young pretenders was nothing if not audacious.
The Opus 1 sonatas must rank amongst the least known and recorded of Vivaldi’s published instrumental works. Scored for two violins and cello with a harpsichord continuo (occasionally augmented by lute and chamber organ), they take as their foundation a 4-movement, slow-fast-slow-fast model. For those of us steeped in the later concertos, the sonatas initially sound strangely dated and stylistically restrained … but it is not long before distinctively Vivaldian traits begin to emerge. The dense dialogue between the violins, interspersed with passages of sumptuous melody and outbursts of almost manic energy, are certainly characteristic. For the players, these works must represent a sterner challenge than the concertos, and it is a tribute to the experienced members of Italian ensemble L’Estravagante that this disc is so completely engaging. Yet another superbly dynamic and transparent recording from Naive sets the seal on a highly recommendable release. AF
Mozart / Weber – Clarinet Quintets [66:05]
Emma Johnson - Clarinet
ASV CD DCA1079 (2012/2000)
Even during Mozart’s lifetime, the clarinet was still throwing off old military associations to find its place in the orchestra and salon, and only in his final years did the composer create his two sublime masterpieces for the instrument; the Clarinet Concerto and Quintet. To audiences of the classical period, the combination of wind instrument with strings provided a bridge between serious music and entertainment, yet both of these works were written for Mozart’s close friend and prominent clarinet virtuoso, Anton Stadler, and show a notable tenderness and warmth. The Quintet, though full of gorgeous melodies, also unexpectedly lapses into occasional darker episodes of melancholy, restlessness, even anguish that lends it an epic quality. It is a work that belongs in every collection.
Carl Maria von Weber is the best-known composer to have written extensively for the clarinet, and his own Quintet of 1815 clearly parallels Mozart’s in its broad structure and in also being a gift of friendship to a virtuoso, Heinrich Baermann. Even in the company of its revered predecessor, this is an impressive work; created in an era that now knew Beethoven, it plays out on a larger, more overtly virtuosic stage where its showmanship provides a perfect foil to Mozart’s gentler introspection, yet offers a full measure of beauty and pathos for all that. The disc closes with an incomplete fragment, written in Mozart’s final months and speculated to be the opening movement of a second Quintet for Stadler. Gorgeous it is, though watch out for the unexpectedly abrupt ending!
Well-known clarinettist Emma Johnson takes the technical demands of these works in her stride and, together with her top-flight ensemble turns in a modern-instrument performance that is both traditional and extremely likeable – my favourite of the handful of Mozart Quintet recordings I’ve heard. Originally released in 2000, it’s easy to see why this fine-sounding disc was deemed worthy of a second airing. AF
Music by Ross Edwards, Paul Stanhope etc. [64:30]
Melba MR301139 (2012)
I must admit to an ambivalence towards ‘contemporary’ classical music – by which I mean music being composed in the here and now, rather than those unspeakable ‘crossover’ recordings. The classical compositions I’ve heard from the last two or three decades have often embraced a severely reductive atonality, which I find most unappealing. Hence, I approached this disc as something of a chore … but the fact that the music was more accessible and interesting than anticipated, plus a recording that was clearly exceptional, brought me back, and by the third listen I was thoroughly enjoying it!
Ross Edwards is the senior of the four Australian composers featured, and likely the only one whose name could be familiar to overseas audiences. His Piano Trio was commissioned as a competition piece and its open texture provides space for the attractive, upbeat melodies to unfold. Paul Stanhope’s ‘Dolcissimo Uscignolo’ borrows its title, inspiration and various musical quotations from a Monteverdi madrigal, weaving from them a concoction whose sheer unpredictability exerts a magnetic hold on the listener. Matthew Hindson’s Piano Trio is a more familiar-sounding approach to experimental modern music, combining driving rhythms with meditative, melodic interludes. Nicholas Buc’s ‘Trailer Music’ is a fascinatingly original vision – inspired by the promotional film clips shown in cinemas, its rapid changes of direction, mood and tempo mimic the dissociative experience of fast cut video editing, while also providing moments of gorgeous lyricism.
Making their debut recording, the Benaud Trio (cheekily named in tribute to an iconic cricket commentator, familiar throughout those former British colonies which embrace the game) does a remarkable job with this music, making it sound a great deal less difficult than it is. The recording itself must share star billing – the sparkle on the Steinway’s upper registers is exquisite and, with violin and cello well spread to enhance the spatial perspective, this is surely the finest recording of an instrumental trio I’ve heard. Sadly, the obscure nature of this music is unlikely to find a wide audience … but the lucky few will have something to cherish! AF
Clifford Curzon Edition - Complete Recordings
Sir Clifford Curzon - Piano
Sir Clifford Curzon was one of the finest British Pianist to grace the concert hall during the 20th Century. To mark the thirtieth anniversary of his death Decca has released a one box set all his commercial recordings from the the 1930s to the 1970s and have also included recordings never before released.
Curzon was a pupil of the teacher Charles Reddie and was a scholarship pupil at the Royal Academy of Music. However, on hearing the pianist Artur Schnabel, he upped sticks to study with him in Berlin and credited the legendary pianist with much of his technique. This box set contains many joys to discover and if you are not familiar with Curzon then you will soon be swept up in his intrinsic musicality and energy.
Just listen to his performance of the Brahms 1st Piano concerto with George Szell and the LSO or sample his recording of the Brahms 3rd Piano sonata or any of his Mozart concertos partnered by Britten or Kertesz. His chamber music making is also superb and his recordings of the Dvorak or Cesar Franck Piano Quintets with the VPO String Quartet are well worth the price.
The set also includes a DVD of his BBC recitals from the 60s and includes an interview with the conductor and broadcaster Bernard Keeffe who was also the conducting teacher of myself and our esteemed publisher of Audiophilia.
This 24 CD/DVD set includes mono and stereo recording as well as some doubling of repertoire and the sound can be variable in the earlier 1940s material, however, if you want to get to know this artist or consolidate your collection of his recorded legacy you can’t do any better than flash the cash and buy it. You won’t be disappointed [this review led me to replay Curzon's Mozart Testament/Decca LP resissues -- what a pianist! - Ed]. JN
Beethoven — The Piano Concertos
Daniel Barenboim — Piano
Beethoven –Five Piano Concertos [210:30]
Daniel Barenboim — Piano
New Philharmonia Orchestra / Otto Klemperer
EMI Classics B004H59ZRS
‘Beethoven For All’ is the tagline Decca are using for their Barenboim box sets of the Symphonies, Piano Concertos and Sonatas and if it gets people to appreciate how wonderful these works are then I am all for it.
The drawback is that Barenboim recorded the Piano Concertos back in 1968 with Otto Klemperer and for more than 40 years these performances have been considered amongst the finest in the catalogue, so which set is the one to get?
The new Decca set is taken from live performances recorded in Germany and there is little to criticise in the first three concertos, however the differences become more apparent in the remaining fourth and fifth concertos where the wisdom of Otto Klemperer shines through in the EMI set. Barenboim and the Berlin orchestra make heavy weather of the fourth concerto and its sublime moments are lost in the tricky passages as the soloist and orchestra concentrate on keeping together rather than creating poetry. Barenboim and Klemperer create a performance that is indeed special and their performance of the fifth, the “Emperor,” is magisterial and powerful by turns even as Klemperer tries to reign in the youthful Barenboim by pulling back the tempo in the Emperor’s first orchestral tutti and a good natured battle ensues which gives the performance a real quality [if you can live with the famous clanger by Barenboim in the tricky triplets -- on a high Eb if memory serves me correctly - Ed]
EMI has remasterd the 60s tapes and in all honesty the New Philharmonia is a better orchestra than the Berlin Staatskapelle, leaving the choice between those who like recent live performances rather than older studio readings as the only real reason to choose the Decca set. You also get a bonus in the form of the Fantasia with John Alldis Choir on EMI and some truly fine music making from the wily old Klemperer. JN
Audiophilia Recommended New Releases - Update 25/6/12
Tchaikovsky – Symphony No.1 [55:21]
Russian National Orchestra / Mikhail Pletnev
Pentatone SACD PTC5186381 (2012)
Tchaikovsky’s reputation as a symphonist is founded almost exclusively on his later contributions to the genre, the Fourth to Sixth, while their antecedents do not share their popularity. So it is that, having already committed those better-known works to disc for Pentatone, Mikhail Pletnev is only now tackling the First Symphony.
Composed in 1866, when Tchaikovsky was 26 years old, in the little time allowed to him by his teaching post at the Moscow Conservatoire, it not untypically underwent later revision in 1874 but remained one of the composer’s favourite works to the end of his days. Its title of ‘Winter Daydreams’ signals the predominant mood of the work, rather than a deliberate attempt at programme music, yet the opening movements especially seem to strongly evoke an image of snow-covered steppes. Though Pletnev’s tempos are slower than most, in the first movement particularly, there is no loss of focus; indeed, the richly characterful interpretation he offers here firmly attests to the principle that there is something special about a Russian orchestra playing Russian music. The instantly recognisable ‘Slavonic March’, a patriotic ode to the Russian intervention in the Serbian-Ottoman War, also receives a rousing rendition. The spacious, finely-balanced recording is up to Pentatone’s usual high standard. AF
The Nutcracker (Complete) [93:17]
Russian National Orchestra / Mikhail Pletnev
Ondine ODE 1180-2D (2011)
Also coincidentally coming to hand is a complete recording of Tchaikovsky’s music to the ballet ‘The Nutcracker’, by the same forces but on the Ondine label. Never having been a great fan of ballet music – or its modern equivalent, the movie soundtrack! I have not previously made a conscious effort to listen to it, yet none of us can truly say we don’t know the Nutcracker. So many of its tunes (such as the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”) have seeped into our consciousness over time and, to my surprise, there was something irresistible about this recording; no doubt the excellent playing of the RNO is a factor, though it is also unusually vivid and coherent for incidental music.
Tchaikovsky completed it in early 1892 but was not satisfied, considering his earlier music for ‘Sleeping Beauty’ far superior, yet the reaction of audiences was such that it quickly became an orchestral standard. Ondine’s recording is, again, beautifully balanced and nicely detailed, though lacking a strong depth perspective. Hopefully others will comment on the merits of this version relative to the many others that are available – I suspect it will hold up very well. AF
Roussel – Le festin de l’araignée (The Spider’s Banquet) [54:53]
Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Denève
Naxos 8.572243 (2012)
Albert Roussel was another figure to emerge from the milieu of fin de siècle Paris, whence he had returned after originally abandoning musical studies to join the French Navy. Though he held a prominent academic position and tutored Satie, Varèse and Martinu, he was never really adopted by the establishment, perhaps explaining why his surviving works (spanning 59 opuses) are little known today. This fifth (and final) volume of the RSNO’s acclaimed cycle on Naxos features his most performed work – ballet-pantomime ‘The Spider’s Banquet’, composed in 1912 – and probably the most exotic, the orchestral suites which he assembled from his Indian-themed opera-ballet ‘Padmâvati’, which had occupied him throughout the war years but whose complex demands doomed it to be staged only rarely.
While Roussel was well-versed in the impressionism of his contemporaries, the vivid programme music of ‘The Spider’s Banquet’ seems grounded in an older classical tradition … though to a lesser extent, perhaps, than the ballet music of Saint-Saëns that I reviewed recently. ‘Padmâvati’, on the other hand, evokes the siege of the ancient Indian city of Chittor by the Moghuls and its wild dynamics, rhythmic complexity and references to Indian music place stiff demands on the orchestra – all of which are handled with considerable aplomb! Much like their colleagues at the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, the RSNO’s fortunes have been very much in the ascendant recently under their soon-to-depart Director, Stéphane Denève, with awards and critical plaudits coming thick and fast. I really didn’t know what to expect from this disc but thoroughly enjoyed it, so there’s every chance that you will too. For a recording of this quality – dynamic and spatially vivid, with good presence – at Naxos’ budget price, well worth a punt. AF
Beethoven – Der Glorreiche Augenblick; Choral Fantasia [57:41]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/ Hilary Davan Wetton
Naxos 8.572783 (2012)
The 29th November 1814 witnessed the kind of event that today we would call a ‘photo opportunity’. The great and the good of European royalty had gathered in Vienna to decide how to restore Europe after the carnage wrought by Napoleon, who had been defeated by Wellington and sent to Elba. Even if the real star of the show, the ‘Iron Duke’, wasn’t there, they had another megastar to entertain them in the form of Beethoven. He presented his Wellington’s Victory together with the 7th Symphony and a new cantata, Der Glorreiche Augenblick.
This work lasting just under 40 minutes was the icing on the cake for the glitterati of the day but posterity has not been kind to it. To be fair, it is not vintage Beethoven, but is of interest to any music lovers who really want to get to know everything he wrote. This performance gives the work the best shot it can at persuading us that it deserves a place in the record catalogue if not the concert hall.
Davan-Wetton conducts a glowing account and the singing of both the City of London Choir and the Westminster Boys Choir is exemplary. The soloists, too, are in fine form and the RPO plays with panache and poise.
The Choral Fantasia is much better known and gives us a chance to appreciate Leon McCawley who shapes the solo piano part with style and receives strong support from Choir and Orchestra. This is one for the library and for surprising dinner guests who think they know everything about Beethoven. JN
God’s Fiddler: Jascha Heifetz
A film by Peter Rosen
Euroarts 2058538 (2012)
Heifetz was considered by many to be the world’s greatest violinist. He made his debut at Carnegie Hall in front of an audience of the best from the musical world and was immediately hailed as a genius. But, that expectation lay heavily upon him in the early years and after leaving his native Russia and settling in the USA, he embarked on a period of more hedonistic pleasures. He had a passion for home movie making and a fascination with the early Hollywood film industry which led to him marrying the ex wife of Hollywood director King Vidor.
Some very poor concert reviews pulled him up short and from then on he dedicated himself to being the best in the world — this was to alter his personality and led to the accusations of coldness which dogged him throughout his career.
Rosen’s film draws on the people who worked and studied with him during the later part of his life including Itzakh Perlman. The picture they paint is one of a man of greatness who found it difficult to relate to people and who became increasingly reclusive in his final years. The film, however, fails to dig deeply enough to get at the real Heifetz and we are left wondering at the end why he disinherited his children and why they didn’t take part in the film to give their side of the story. Perhaps they felt that the Heifetz legend should be left intact.
One story worth retelling concerns the violinist Mischa Ellman who attended the famous debut recital and remarked to the Pianist Leopold Godowsky that it was very hot in the hall – ‘Not for pianists’, came the droll reply. JN
Ferdinand Hérold – Overtures and Symphonies [54:53]
Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana / Wolf-Dieter Hauschild
Delizie Musicali DM8028 (2012)
Many composers of the 19th Century embodied their reputation on one type of work and Ferdinand Hérold is a classic example of that fate. He was a very successful composer for the theatre and his overtures are still played today even though the operas they begin are long forgotten. The overture Zampa, one of the finest light classical overtures written, together with the overture Le Pre aux Clercs, kicks this CD off in a very cheery manner. The symphonies are also totally unknown today but whilst they are not Mozart or Haydn, they have a charm and directness which many lovers of classical symphonies will find attractive. The hitherto unknown to me Swiss Italian Orchestra give these scores fully committed performances under Wolf-Dieter Hauschild. JN
Bruckner — Symphony No. 2
Northern Sinfonia/ Mario Venzago
CPO 777 735 – 2
Bruckner’s 2nd Symphony is the hidden gem in the Bruckner canon. He conducted the premiere himself in Vienna on 26th October 1873 and afterwards the Vienna Philharmonic gave him a standing ovation. Bruckner, however, fell foul of the Viennese critic Hanslick when he confessed to being an acolyte of the then controversial Richard Wagner and for the next two decades was subjected to the ridicule and manipulation of the warring factions behind the drive for classical form and the Wagner radicals. This did Bruckner no favours and led to the repeated revisions of his symphonies by himself and others that obscured his true genius for many generations.
This performance by the Northern Sinfonia breaks new ground in as much as it is a chamber orchestra and plays the work with the size of orchestral forces much nearer to the original performance whilst also employing no vibrato in the strings as was the style in 19th century orchestral playing. The result is a performance which brings out the detail in the score far more cleanly than many modern performances although I did miss the warmth of string sound which adds depth to this rich score. Occasionally, the violins sounded thin in the more romantic passages.
In this recording, Venzago plays the 1877 version which is the normal edition used. It is well worth getting this performance if you are a committed Brucknerian. The orchestra play with real passion for the work and many will be surprised how much like chamber music the symphony sounds when played with smaller forces. JN
Audiophilia Recommended New Releases - Update 18/6/12
Ed Sheeran – “ + ” [54:53]
Asylum 5249864652 (2011)
At a time when new pop music talent is mostly manufactured for a brain-dead viewing audience, Ed Sheeran is a rarity; only after years of constant gigging and sleeping on couches was the 21-year old finally able to force the record companies to take notice. Ostensibly the inheritor of a noble tradition of English guitarist singer-songwriters (including David Gray, James Blunt, Tom McRae, James Morrison and Newton Faulkner, off the top of my head), Sheeran’s music is informed by a new reality – a world where success is measured in downloads and YouTube hits and where, hard as it may be to accept, rap/house music is an ever-present influence. While Sheeran’s cheeky swipe at the music industry, “You Need Me, I Don’t Need You” is a straight-out rap, these influences otherwise manifest more often as vocal inflections, rhythmic quirks and songs built around a continuous narrative flow.
Dark themes predominate, from the tale of a young life gone off the rails in catchy debut single “The A Team” to the harrowingly understated ending of pretty ballad “Small Bump”. Special mention must also go to the sublime video clip for another of the disc’s high points, “Lego House”, where the singer’s oft-noted resemblance to actor Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley in the Harry Potter movies) is mocked by casting Grint as an obsessed fan – if whoever thought that up doesn’t get an award there’s no justice! As a debut album, ‘+’ is not an unmitigated triumph, but it does announce the arrival of a significant new artist; indeed, it may be that Sheeran will come to be seen as the first genuinely 21st-Century troubadour. AF
This disc arrived unexpectedly and, playing it before reading the CD booklet, I was struck by a sound that seemed to combine elements of Busoni and Debussy. A rare moment of insight on my part, as it transpires that Boyle had been instrumental in popularising Debussy’s music with American audiences, while Busoni was his teacher for five years and single greatest influence.
In 1910, aged just 24 and on the brink of achieving global recognition, George Frederick Boyle was appointed head of the Peabody Institute’s piano department and, until his death in the late ‘40s, pursued a career as a virtuoso pianist, conductor, composer and teacher – including lengthy spells at the Curtis and Juilliard schools. Embraced enthusiastically by an American musical establishment which claimed him for their own, Boyle was actually an Australian … and with these world premiere recordings, compatriot Timothy Young aims to challenge the almost total obscurity that has befallen Boyle’s substantial body of composition.
The opening Ballade makes a statement of expressiveness and individualism; absorbing, yet ultimately transcending, influences from the Romantic and Impressionist periods, it packs an extraordinary range of emotions, themes and continuous invention into just 12 minutes. The imposing Sonata that follows demonstrates a similar directness and strongly melodic foundation, with little of the whimsy that characterised the impressionists. Ending with a set of appealing miniatures that Boyle dedicated to individual students, Timothy Young’s debut solo recording for Melba confirms the exceptional promise he showed as an accompanist on marvellous discs of Stravinsky and Koechlin previously featured in these pages.
Recording quality is predictably fine, offering a supremely natural and spatially coherent listener’s view of a piano in a real acoustic space; this in contrast with the much closer perspective of Leslie Howard’s recent Rachmaninov disc, so take your pick! Downloads are also available, including hi-rez 24/96, though the unmatched quality of Melba’s packaging and artwork always makes their CDs such nice things to own. Another triumph for Melba, then, in an inspired series of releases that have restored unjustly neglected music to the catalogue … made bittersweet by the misguided withdrawal of the government funding which facilitated these globally-acclaimed projects. Please register your protest by buying a copy! AF
Josquin – Masses [75:58]
Tallis Scholars / Peter Phillips
Gimmell CDGIM044 (2011)
Josquin Desprez is now regarded as the greatest master of the earlier Renaissance, his life spanning the period from the mid-1400’s to 1521. Yet he has caused musicologists more anxiety than most in the attempt to authenticate his works; for no autograph scores survive, and the many varied spellings of his name have led to speculation that there may have been other composers known similarly, while his popularity at the time most likely encouraged counterfeiters.
Fortunately, few such concerns hang over his most widely disseminated and performed work (judging by its appearance in choir books across Europe), the Missa De beata virgine, a large scale mass from late in his life which features on the Tallis Scholars’ disc. To those familiar with later Renaissance works, it is dated by a reliance on chants and plainsong, which gave way to a lusher polyphony as time progressed – despite its hallowed reputation, Peter Phillips’ excellent liner notes do not disguise his preference for the earlier Missa Ave maris stella, based on its conciseness and greater thematic cohesion.
‘The Earth Resounds’ [61:07]
The Sixteen / Harry Christophers
Coro 16097 (2012)
The Sixteen’s disc brings together shorter motets from Josquin and the later-lived Orlande de Lassus, including a parody piece in the master’s honour. While more colour and flamboyance is apparent in these later works, the show is stolen somewhat by the two selections from Josquin-contemporary Antoine Brunel’s “Earthquake Mass”, whose shimmering layers of vocalisation mimic the effect of shaking ground – perhaps one of the earliest examples of musical impressionism?!
The Sixteen’s sound is, as usual, notably ethereal, enhancing the impression of these works as “sound sculptures”, while the always impeccable Tallis Scholars sing with more sweetness to their tone than I have previously heard. Those who, like me, have an unquenchable appetite for this music will want both discs, and I wouldn’t advise otherwise! AF
Frederick Delius — A Mass of Life [117:00]
Janice Watson, Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Andrew Kennedy, Alan Opie
The Bach Choir
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
Naxos 8.572861 – 62
Delius’ greatest champion was the British conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, who mounted more performances than any other of this work during the first half of the 20th century. Beecham said of Delius that he was the “last great apostle in our time of romance, emotion and beauty in music.”
A Mass of Life is not a sacred work, Delius had no time for religion of any kind and like many artists of his time he was drawn to writers and philosophers to explain the meaning of life. The text for the work is a series of excerpts from “Also Sprach Zarathrustra” by Nietzsche and it’s about celebrating the ideal of man as superman. He only chose the poetical writings from Nietzsche and the settings are designed to weave the solo singing, choral and orchestral forces together in a seamless balance.
This new Naxos recording, which was made to celebrate the 150th anniversary of his birth, is one of the most successful that I have heard in bringing the text and creative balance of the work to life. David Hill has produced a fine performance from his forces and the dramatic baritone of Alan Opie suits the role of the hero admirably without pushing the balance of the other singers out of focus.
This is a performance well worth having of this neglected work, and, unlike Beecham, Hill presents the text in the original German edition and there are full translations in the programme notes. All lovers of Delius should have this on their shelves. JN
Gustav Holst — Walt Whitman Overture; Cotswold Symphony; A Winter Idyll; Japanese Suite; Indra [65:00]
The Planets suite is one of the great 20th century orchestral masterpieces standing up there with Stravinsky’s Rite and Firebird. Sadly, Holst was never to again experience the success of that work despite writing what I think are some very fine compositions which showed off his other interests including his interest in eastern philosophies and also the work of William Morris and the poet Walt Whitman.
Naxos has brought together five works spanning nearly twenty years of Holst’s creative life and notably have recorded “ A Winter Idyll “ completed whilst Holst was still a student at the Royal College of Music and “ Indra “, both of which are still in manuscript held by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.
His Walt Whitman overture is a bright and energetic piece which shows Holst as an accomplished orchestrator and like the Cotswold Symphony provides some fine parts for the orchestra brass section. (Not surprising as Holst was an orchestral trombonist for many years.)
The Japanese Suite is of interest because he wrote it at the same time as he was writing The Planets and there is a strong similarity in style as well as a strain of Stravinsky as well. It was written for the Japanese dancer Michio Ito who was touring and wanted an original work to open with at the London Coliseum in 1915.
The Cotswold Symphony written in 1899 is dominated by the slow movement dedicated to the memory of William Morris, the socialist and writer, who was a major influence on him. The name Cotswold is I think misleading as the work is not just a collection of rustic tunes but an original composition which sounds more regal in places rather the Cotswold countryside!
Indra is a depiction of the Indian God and was written in 1903, it again shows Holst as an original musical mind.
JoAnn Falletta and the Ulster Orchestra have produced an important sound document charting Holst’s early work and the performances are strong with some fine brass playing, particularly in the symphony. Well worth exploring if you are a fan of Holst and English musical rarities. JN
Offenbach like his English rival Arthur Sullivan was the king of the comic opera genre during the mid to late 19th century. His full length operettas are justifiably famous for their wit and dramatic style. However, at the start of his career, Offenbach was only allowed to present one act operas at the little Bouffes-Parisiens Theatre that he managed and it wasn’t until the company moved to larger premises that these restrictions were lifted and Offenbach was able to give free rein to his comic genius and create works such as Orpheus in the Underworld and La Vie Parisienne. Both these remain popular today.
The European Opera Centre based in Liverpool and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic have joined forces to present this rare one act piece and have released it on the RLPO Live label. It gives us a fine opportunity to hear the piece with full orchestra and the best of young European singers. The plot revolves around Florestan who is trying to escape from a Bailiff by hiding in a bedroom only to be discovered by Suzanne and her friend who try unsuccessfully to get rid of him before her husband comes home — who happens to be the Bailiff! You can imagine the 19th century French audience smiling with anticipation at the impending drama.
The production is unusual in that actors speak the dialogue and the singers sing the music/ As this is only a sound recording we have no idea how this works in reality but it certainly keeps the action flowing and the performance is well worth hearing if you are a lover of this type of comic opera.
The orchestra plays with energy and commitment under Petrenko if at times they are a little too powerful for the singers. That said, the overall energy of the performance makes it well worth a listen.
The opera is coupled with Offenbach songs sung by the same company of singers and again gives a rare chance to hear his songs presented with piano in a salon like setting. JN
Audiophilia Recommended New Releases - Update 8/5/12
Vanhal – Two Symphonies, Cello Concerto [55:01]
Istvan Vardai – Cello, Camerata Schweiz / Howard Griffiths
CPO 777612-2 (2011)
Johann Baptist Vanhal (his surname suffers a variety of alternative spellings) was born into indentured servitude in Bohemia (modern Czechoslovakia) in 1739. He showed an early aptitude for the keyboard, but it was his violin compositions that impressed a noble patron sufficiently to take him, at the age of twenty-one, to Vienna for further studies. There, his success and reputation grew, and he was soon able to purchase his freedom. From this time until 1780, Vanhal produced around seventy five symphonies; the abrupt cessation of his output a prediction of changing tastes in Vienna, seen also in the waning of Mozart’s interest in the symphony during that decade.
Vanhal travelled through Italy and Croatia, was widely published during his lifetime and, despite a degree of patronage, generally supported himself with income from teaching and composing – over his 74 years, he is believed to have produced some 1300 works. Perhaps his greatest claim to notoriety nowadays, though, was his involvement in one of the most evocative events of the Classical period; the gathering in 1784 of the most fabled string quartet of all time, comprising Mozart, Haydn, von Dittersdorf and Vanhal on cello. Modern players can take heart from the contemporary report by an English witness that they were not particularly good!
The works recorded here can be succinctly and accurately summarised by saying that they stand close and favourable comparison to the mature symphonies of his slightly older contemporary, Haydn – indeed, several of Vanhal’s works have been wrongly attributed to Haydn over the years. The point to note, though, is that Haydn’s greatest symphonies are all later works than these, so it may be that Vanhal’s influence deserves much greater credit. Conductor Howard Griffiths has been on a mission to resurrect several neglected composers from this period – including an acclaimed series of recordings of Ferdinand Ries and Louis Spohr – and this performance with his youthful Swiss chamber orchestra is superb. The playing is taut, stylish and athletic, with an open and transparent texture, beautifully recorded by CPO in a gorgeous acoustic. Let’s hope that this turns into a series too! AF
Handel – The Eight Great Suites [105:17]
Lisa Smirnova – Piano
ECM New Series 2213/4 (2011)
These eight suites for harpsichord were published in 1720 by Handel himself, as a hasty response to a pirate edition printed in Amsterdam and compiled from manuscripts that had gradually slipped into circulation over time. Indeed, these works most probably had their genesis a good 15 years earlier, but were revised to a greater or lesser extent for publication (a step that also helped to highlight the unauthorised nature of the competing edition). In their varying number and sequence of movements, these suites reflect the range of trans-European musical influences that informed Handel in particular, and the German tradition in general. Where solo keyboard music is concerned, that tradition is most notably handed down to us in the prolific output of Bach; yet, across 18th Century Europe, it was Handel’s suites that held the greater notoriety and popularity.
Owning only incomplete performances of this cycle on piano, by Angela Hewitt and Murray Perahia, a complete recording was particularly appealing to me. The ECM label, perhaps better known to fans of modern jazz, is famed for its recording quality, and the heavily reverberant sound of the piano – unusual when modern practice favours a drier, ‘studio’ sound – is gorgeous. It is Smirnova’s playing, though, that takes these suites to another level; while Hewitt deliberately mimics the harpsichord phrasing, and Perahia’s metronomic rhythms firmly anchor them in the Baroque (though the kinetic intensity of his ‘Harmonious Blacksmith’ has to be heard to be believed!), Smirnova achieves a freer, warmer, more distinctively pianistic rendition that, without significant departure from the score or any sense of erring from the composer’s intention, somehow divorces these works from the stylistic constraints of their historical roots and projects them as timeless monuments to art. Very impressive indeed and, needless to say, well worth a listen. AF
“La Spagna” – A tune through three centuries [87:22]
Atrium Musicae de Madrid / Gregorio Paniagua
BIS SACD-1963 (1980/2011)
During the late ‘70s, audiophiles were considered a sufficiently important demographic to justify some ambitious projects aimed at achieving superlative recording quality. Some, such as the Sheffield Labs direct-to-disc series, remain prized to this day … but have been equally reviled for the questionable merit of some of the music upon which such effort was expended. While the original double LP release of ‘La Spagna’ in 1980 was quickly inducted into this select group of ‘sonic extravaganzas’, its true raison d’etre was a serious and innovative experiment by Early Music pioneers to take the most popular tune of mediaeval times – which had become associated with the King of Spain, and known as ‘La Spagna’ – and follow its development as it rode a wave of Spanish influence across Europe over the following 300 years. As manuscript music from this period typically does not specify instrumentation, the choice is left to the performer, and the enduring fame of this recording owes much to the vast array of antique (or, in some cases, just plain weird!) instruments utilised.
After three decades, BIS has seen fit to dust off the analogue master tapes and carefully transfer them to hybrid SACD; released on a single disc, the recording’s length means that the final track is available only on the SACD layer. For Early Music enthusiasts – and there are many more of them now than when the disc was first released, I suspect – and former owners of the original vinyl, this disc is self-recommending. My listening has been confined to the CD layer and, to be honest, I’m still not quite sure what to make of the recording; while often very natural and recognisably ‘analogue’ in character, the occasional outbreaks of sonic fireworks can seem a little contrived, and instrumental balance appears badly askew at times. For better or worse, I think it’s fair to say that they don’t record ‘em like this anymore! AF
Of all the great jazz bands from the golden age of Jazz, the Duke Ellington Orchestra has, for me, always been one of the finest, and this recording taken live from a concert in Stuttgart in 1967 fully demonstrates what a towering figure he and his legendary musicians were.
From the opening number “ Take The A Train “, Ellington launches into a master class of big band sound with soloists including Cootie Williams on trumpet and Paul Gonsalves on tenor sax flying through “ Knob Hill “ and “ Tutti for Cootie “. Harry Carney also shines in “A Chromatic Love Affair “and Ellington’s own compositions are also heavily featured with “Swamp Goo “ and “Salome “ amongst them.
He kept his 14 piece band going through his royalties from his publishing company and never compromised on innovation to the very end.
This is a very welcome addition to his many albums that came out in the sixties and is a very promising start to a jazz series that Jazz Haus will be bringing out over the next few months and years.
Well worth a listen for all Ellington fans. JN
The Music of I.T.C. [150:00]
Incorporated Television Company was the production company founded by Lew Grade in the 1950’s to make TV drama for Independent Television in the UK. Over a period of over 20 years in turned out show after show that were the staple of TV audiences in Britain and around the globe and gave the world Roger Moore as “ The Saint ” and Patrick McGoohan as” The Prisoner “to name but two of their hit shows.
The music for these dramas was equally addictive and provided a host of top composers and arrangers with regular showcases for their talents including the likes of Edwin Astles, Albert Elms, Tony Hatch and Ron Grainer. Even Sir Paul McCartney wrote the theme tune for ” The Zoo Gang “ one of the later ITC shows of the 70s.
ITC have brought together in a two CD collection all the existing tracks recorded for these shows and they provide a fascinating glimpse of the art of TV writing not to mention a real feel for the 60’s and 70’s with wow wow guitar riffs and electronic organ arpeggios together with cutting brass motifs and silky string writing that brings the true heyday of “Lounge “ music to vivid life.
Edwin Astles takes the major credit for many of the most catchy tunes and themes including the famous Saint voice sting at the start of every episode and the themes for “The Baron”, “Department S” and “Randall and Hopkirk Deceased “( about a PI with a dead partner who comes back as a ghost to help in investigations! ). My favourite is the theme to” Man In A Suitcase” which featured American actor Richard Bradford as a disgraced CIA agent working in Europe to try to clear his name and was one of the best 60s detective shows in the UK for it’s gritty realistic portrayal of the life in the secret service.
All of these show were broadcast in North America although only The Saint was syndicated in the US and they represent the best of British spy drama of it’s era and can be purchased as box sets on DVD for a modest price.
ITC suffered a heavy loss on the feature film “Raise The Titanic “, (Lew Grade once quipped it would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic) and effectively the era of ITC came to an end with the show “Return of the Saint “ in 1978.
If you like me however remember these shows from your youth then this CD will delight and is also a perfect soundtrack to a 70s party. Kick back on the sofa and open the Martini but make sure that your Gun is hidden under a cushion just in case. Enjoy! JN
Peter Maxwell Davies - Symphony No 1 [01:08:03]
Mavis in Las Vegas
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Peter Maxwell Davies
It’s hard to believe that Naxos as a label has only been around for 25 years this month, in that time the record industry has undergone huge changes and when many major labels were giving up on classical music as a loss leader, along came Naxos and proved that there is still plenty of life in the industry and people still want to buy CDs or increasingly download high quality classical recordings.
From humble beginnings in the 80s with mainly little known artists and central European orchestras that never got the opportunity to tour like their famous neighbours in Berlin and Vienna the label now boasts recordings from many of the worlds finest orchestras including the LPO and RPO in England.
British Music has also done very well from the label with recorded cycles of Parry, Bax, Villiers Stanford, William Alwyn and Maxwell Davies symphonies not to mention string quartet recordings of distinction covering Vaughan Williams, Moeran and many other composers who’s music was unknown in this field to most people 30 years ago.
Maxwell Davies recorded his Symphony No. 1 with BBC Philharmonic in the 1990s and the recording was originally released on Collins Classics. It is a large scale piece encompassing Maxwell Davies’s inspiration from living in the Orkneys and conveys the wildness of the abandoned crofts and landscape.
The work grew from its original conception and now spans nearly 55 minutes of music. The symphony is an important statement from one of Britain’s finest living composers and fully deserves to be heard, so full marks to Naxos for reissuing it coupled with the very enjoyable piece Mavis in Las Vegas, so named because of a mix up in Maxwell Davies’s name by a desk clerk in the Las Vegas Flamingo Hotel who checked him in as Mavis. It is a thoroughly enjoyable romp in the style of his other works in this style, like the Foxtrot for Orchestra, and offers a contemporary musical take on the Las Vegas scene painted by full orchestra.
[I was at the world premiere in London when it was called 'Symphony'. With Simon Rattle and the Philharmonia. A knockout piece and performance. Composer and conductor did a pre concert talk. Fascinating stuff. - Ed]
William Alwyn - Film Music [01:09:46]
RNCM Wind Orchestra
Clark Rundell – Mark Heron
William Alwyn was one of the most prominent film composers of the 1940s and ’50s and his scores for films such as The Way Ahead directed by Carol Reed and starring David Niven show how effective his music was. The History of Mr Polly starring John Mills gave Alwyn the chance to write a full score describing the action and the history of the character and gave him the scope to include and develop themes for each character.
The Royal Northern College of Music Wind Orchestra are one of Britain’s finest wind groups and play these scores with verve and conviction. For film fans well worth exploring. JN
Great Piano Concertos [33:01:13]
Various Artists and orchestras
The box set Great Piano Concertos has been produced to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Naxos and draws on their extensive catalogue of concerto recordings. The recording quality varies from the older 1980’s recordings but there are some good things to enjoy in the 10 CD set particularly Idel Biret playing the two Chopin piano concerts with the Slovak State Philharmonic under Rubert Stankovsky. The two Liszt concertos with Eldar Nebelson and the RLPO under Petrenko are also very enjoyable as is Jeno Jando playing the Grieg and Schumann concertos with the Budapest Symphony under Andras Ligeti.
There are finer performances available in the catalogue of these works but this box set give an excellent introduction at a bargain price to the main body of concertos written for the Piano from Mozart to Prokofiev via Beethoven and Brahms and you can’t offer a much better way to introduce yourself to any works you don’t know. JN
Audiophilia Recommended New Releases - Update 3/4/12
Mozart – Piano Concertos 6, 8 & 9 [75:23]
Angela Hewitt – Piano, Orchestra Da Camera Di Mantova
Hyperion CDA67840 (2011)
Is it just me, or is the mere prospect of Angela Hewitt playing early Mozart piano concertos with an Italian chamber orchestra irresistible on every level?! Hewitt has an unequalled reputation for insightful performance on piano of music originally written for the harpsichord and, as she explains in her typically entertaining and informative liner notes, despite these works being designated as piano concertos there simply was no fortepiano in Salzburg in the mid-1770s … hence, they would by necessity have been composed and performed on harpsichord. Hewitt’s precise, filigree touch and the ringing clarity of her Fazioli piano perfectly articulate the young genius’s vision.
The Sixth and Eighth Concertos are prime examples of early Mozart; hinting at some of the darker, moodier episodes of the later works while retaining the familiar transcendent lightness of his youth. The Ninth, known as “Jeunehomme” after what is now realised to be the mis-spelled surname of its female dedicatee, is often cited (along with the 29th Symphony, written some 3 years earlier) as the defining work of Mozart’s ascendance to maturity as a composer (though what most rivals would have given to write one of his immature works!). There is a clear sense of boundaries being pushed, the earlier playfulness less in evidence and, in its lyricism and outpouring of emotion, Hewitt detects a closer personal connection between composer and dedicatee than history has recorded. The recording is sparkling, dynamic and transparent – making it easy to forgive the fact that it’s also a little up-front, two-dimensional and overtly ‘loud’, lacking somewhat in hall acoustic. The performance, surprisingly the first Mozart that Hewitt has committed to disc, is everything I’d hoped, while the increasingly common practice of using a chamber orchestra to perform concerto works from this era finds its usual justification in a more equable dynamic balance with the soloist and a greater sense of intimacy than a full orchestra can offer. Strongly recommended. AF
Fasch – Orchestral Works Vol 2 [74:12]
‘Tempesta Di Mare’ (Philadelphia Baroque Orchestra)
Chandos CHAN0783 (from CD-resolution download) (2011)
Almost an exact contemporary of Handel, and a decade younger than Telemann, Johann Friedrich Fasch had the well-travelled, cosmopolitan background typical of the great German composers of his time. However, the decision to spend the latter half of his career as Kapellmeister at the minor court of Anhalt-Zerbst, not far from Leipzig, plus the failure to publish any music during his lifetime almost doomed Fasch to obscurity. Fortunately, in his day he was popular with and much admired by his peers (Bach, for example, owned and arranged some of his music) and his willingness to exchange scores with them resulted in significant archives being accumulated in Darmstadt and Dresden. It is from the latter of these that the premiere recordings on this disc – two Italian style 3-movement concertos, a 4-movement Sinfonia and a longer Ouverture/Suite in the French tradition – were preserved.
While these works are a little longer than was typical at the time, their most striking feature is the prominence of the wind instruments within the ensemble and the tonal colours they provide. This led musicologists early in the last century to identify Fasch as one of the key figures in bridging the Baroque and Classical styles; yet I don’t hear that, finding this music to be entirely of its time (which cannot be narrowed down beyond the second quarter of the 18th Century) and broadly comparable to Telemann’s, another composer with a special affinity for wind instruments and a mastery of all musical forms. If history came close to forgetting Fasch, it wasn’t through lack of merit.
Period instrument performance has a noble heritage in America – I cherish several ‘80s recordings by San Francisco’s Philharmonia Baroque! – and the playing of these Philadelphians is both stylish and passionate. The recording is very fine and notably 3-dimensional, making for an exciting and involving listen; now I’m going to have to chase down Volume 1! AF
The parallels between American harpsichordist Skip Sempé and Jordi Savall (patron saint of the viola da gamba, if he needs any introduction!) are striking. Each is a recognised master of his instrument, each has been tireless in researching and recovering lost gems from the Renaissance and early Baroque periods, and each has formed his own orchestra and record label to perform and distribute their music. Though these two discs from Sempé’s Paradizo stable originally saw the light of day a couple of years back, they have reappeared recently so we’ll say that they qualify as new releases by the skin of their teeth!
Sempé’s particular passion lies in exploring the largely forgotten legacy of the 18th Century French harpsichordists who thrived under the giant shadow of Rameau, and in increasing our understanding of the contemporary social forces and performance practices that allow this music to be interpreted correctly. If that leads you to expect a dry, academic exercise then fear not; these obscure yet charming pieces, far from being lightweight salon music, are often highly theatrical and dramatic … none more so than the pyrotechnic La Marche des Scythes by Royer, apparently a showstopper as a concert encore. Sempé here uses the same harpsichord as on his earlier recordings for Alpha, and his trademark sound – more robust in the midrange and less ‘tinkly’ on top than most – lends added gravitas to the material.
French composers Sainte-Colombe and Marin Marais (his pupil) inhabited a slightly earlier period, and provide another link back to Jordi Savall, whose soundtrack to the movie Tous Les Matins Du Monde helped to popularise their music. Here, Sempé is joined by Josh Cheatham and Julien Léonard on six and seven-string viola da gambas, an earthier and slightly weightier sounding ancestor of the cello. While this music often assumes a stately and dolorous air, it is always harmonically inventive and, like other sad music, curiously uplifting; heightening the contrast when the uptempo, dance-rhythm numbers arrive. Included with the Marais disc is a 20-minute bonus DVD, featuring selections from this and other Paradizo releases. Both discs are beautifully recorded in a very natural acoustic and – along with the other appealing-looking titles in Paradizo’s catalogue – well worth checking out. AF
Audiophilia Recommended New Releases - Update 27/2/12
Always popular with the public at large, the opinion of Vivaldi in learned musical circles has been thoroughly revised in recent times – from Stravinsky’s famously dismissive assessment of “the same concerto composed 400 times” to a genuine appreciation of the man’s artistry and constant invention. Much of the reason for that, I believe, lies in the emergence of exceptional period-instrument ensembles like those featured here which, by combining academic research with the distinctive tones of their instruments, have completely overturned the old established modes of performance and brought this music so vividly to life.
Vivaldi – Bassoon Concertos Vol. 2 [76:45]
Sergio Azzolini – Bassoon / L’Aura Soave Cremona
Naive OP30518 (2011)
I recall once reading, in a review of a baroque chamber music disc, that it would make ‘perfect background music at a dinner party’ … obviously meant as a compliment, though I tend to see it as the opposite! This disc of Vivaldi bassoon concertos will not make ideal background music, at a dinner party or anywhere else. From the opening notes – so shockingly dark that I feared a tube had blown in my preamp! – it demands your complete attention. This is modern Vivaldi playing at its most energetic, dynamic, beautiful and extreme.
By virtue of his 39 known concertos for the bassoon, almost all of them late works, Vivaldi is unchallenged as history’s pre-eminent composer for the instrument. Yet it is unclear why he embraced it so enthusiastically, nor whether the Ospedale della Pieta in Venice where he taught and composed for many years even owned one. As with his cello concertos, writing for a solo instrument in a lower register forced Vivaldi to find a new approach, and the distinctively unfamiliar sound of a baroque bassoon battling the orchestra is utterly irresistible! As with other releases I’ve heard from Naive’s ongoing, 15-year project to record Vivaldi’s entire personal collection of scores, the sound quality is absolutely superb. The companion volume won a French Diapason d’Or as the best instrumental release of 2010, and no wonder. AF
Vivaldi – Concertos for Strings [61:53]
Arte Dei Suonatori
BIS CD-1845 (2011)
While Vivaldi was central to establishing the modern format of the ‘solo concerto’ as a dialogue between an instrumental soloist and the orchestra, he was also the last great practitioner of the earlier concerto form with no solo part, now known by the name he gave it – concerto ripieno. Freed from the need to promote a soloist, they fulfil no purpose other than to celebrate music for its own sake; and there may have been no other composer in history more gifted at that than Vivaldi! Ten selections from this corpus of work, which seems to date from his middle and late periods, are presented here. The Polish period instrument ensemble, Arte Dei Suonatori, will be known to many from their extraordinary recording of Vivaldi’s Opus 4 ‘La Stravaganza’ with Rachel Podger (Channel Classics CCS 19598), which won Gramophone Magazine’s Baroque Recording of 2003 award – and for the still greater prestige accorded them by my own Recording of 2011 nomination for their Vivaldi Flute Concertos with Alexis Kossenko! The reduced numbers employed for this disc – just ten musicians – means that the sound is not quite as dark-hued and blisteringly dynamic as the ‘La Stravaganza’ set, but remains a sumptuous, richly dramatic experience thanks to an excellent BIS recording. If not as obviously inspired as those other discs, this one is still a thoroughly enjoyable and distinctive set and a very safe recommendation indeed. AF
Vivaldi – The French Connection 2 [79:03]
La Serenissima / Adrian Chandler
Avie AV2218 (2011)
The middle Baroque period saw the styles of three great national traditions – Italian, German and French – extensively cross-polinate until the Italian emerged dominant. The French style was distinguished by a slow opening overture, some unique dance rhythms and stylised, dotted-note accents; widely evidenced in the music of Telemann, Handel and Bach, it is very much less apparent in Vivaldi’s output. The ‘French Connection’ of the disc’s title (this is the second volume, I’ve not heard the first though it won a Gramophone award) is, then, often particularly tenuous; a tempo marking, a stylistic reference or, in one case, a work written on French paper! No matter – a collection of such enjoyable music needs no justification, the varying combinations of solo instruments (including flute, oboe, bassoon and violin) creating a delightful palette of tonal colour. Tempos are quick, as expected these days, and the sound of La Serenissima (who are English, despite the name) is spirited and beautifully fleshed-out … if a little less fiery than some of the young Italian groups. The Avie label has distinguished itself with some excellent recordings of late, and this is no exception – play loud for maximum effect! AF
“Mladi” – Works by Janacek, Martinu and Reicha [78:50]
Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet
BIS CD-1802 (2011)
The name of Anton Reicha will be unfamiliar to most readers, I suspect, for despite an extensive oeuvre his major legacy was to pioneer the format of the wind quintet, in a set of works written in Paris between 1811 and 1820. Listeners will, I’m sure, hear similarities with Mozart’s serenades for wind octet – especially as the opening notes of Reicha’s Quintet are so reminiscent of the famous Adagio from the Gran Partita! – yet Reicha took unusual liberties with the rules of formal structure, which lends a certain modernity to his writing. The wind quintet format was then virtually ignored by composers for more than a century and, when revived by Martinu and Janacek in the 1920s (both Czechs, like Reicha), had grown to a sextet; Janacek adding a bass clarinet, Martinu a piano. The latter work reflects the eclectic range of influences to which the young man was exposed in the melting pot of the Parisian music scene, and is undeniably ‘modern’. Janacek’s ‘Mladi’ (‘Youth’) is, by contrast, the reminiscence of a 70 year old on his formative years, and considered among the highlights of 20th Century chamber repertoire.
Sadly, the disc is marred by sloppy playing and appalling intonation … yes, of course I’m kidding! Anything I tried to say here would be redundant - the words “Berlin Philharmonic” are a guarantee of perfection in any language, end of story. Swedish label BIS has done their usual excellent job with the sound quality, setting the seal on a slightly unusual but very appealing release. AF
[Come for the Reicha but stay for the Janacek. Mladi is one of his finest works, a perfect example of his unique style and one of the great works for wind ensemble. And the bonus, it's played by the world's finest wind quintet - Ed]
Howard Hanson - Symphonies 4 and 5
Howard Hanson - Symphonies 6 and 7
These recordings were previously released on the Delos label and it’s good that Naxos have re-released them for they are amongst the finest symphonies in the American tradition standing comparison in my opinion with Charles Ives and Virgil Thompson.
Hanson (1896 – 1981) was known as the American Sibelius, whose influence he freely acknowledged throughout his career, but there the similarity ends for Hanson was an all American composer whose symphonies spanned over fifty years of his long life.
The 4th was regarded by him as his favourite work and was written in 1943 and inspired by the death of his father whom it was dedicated. The movements are subtitled from the Mass and show his deep sense of religion, the whole structure being contemplative in nature but with a sweep and orchestral colour that are deeply satisfying.
The 5th is a one movement work premiered in 1955 by Ormandy and the Philadelphia orchestra and again Hanson shows himself a master of large scale orchestral structure. The 6th is a six movement work lasting just over twenty one minutes and the 7th written in 1977 is titled “A Sea Symphony “with settings from Walt Whitman.
The New York Philharmonic commissioned the 6th in 1966 at a time when Hanson was considered too romantic and old fashioned for modern audiences but he shows repeatedly that a fine composer with genuine inspiration need not worry about musical fashions. With the 7th he bade farewell to the form at the age of eighty one with some atmospheric settings of a poet he first set to music in 1915. It’s also curious that Hanson ended is symphonic career with the same theme that Vaughan Williams started his — a Sea Symphony. It shows the powerful influence of Whitman on both composers who were similar in approach but rather different in execution. Both composers knew the work of the other and Vaughan Williams entrusted nearly all his North American premieres to his old friend Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra.
I can honestly say that the journey through Hanson’s symphonies has been for me well worth the time and these performances by the Seattle Symphony under Schwarz are very fine and detailed. JN
Gershwin - Concerto in F; Rhapsody No 2; I got Rhythm Variations
Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra
I first heard the Concerto in F when I was about twelve years old and it immediately painted pictures in my mind of the New York skyline and Manhattan — no other piece has ever done so well. Even today when I walk down the damp windswept sidewalks at night my mind plays over the melodies and I have never altered my opinion that this is pure Big Apple music. (Gershwin even toyed with the idea of calling it his “New York “concerto.)
Orion Weiss plays the Concerto with great panache and draws a depth of sound out of the piano that makes it almost sound like Rachmaninov in places. His rhythms are crisp and poised and the contrasts with the calmer more retrospective passages are well handled.
Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic give him excellent support and the slow movement is turned into a mini tone poem in its own right with the plaintiff trumpet solo at the beginning heralding its blues credentials. This is the very heart of the piece and at nearly thirteen minutes paints a magical scene which soloist and orchestra cleverly maintain without any loss of momentum. The third movement is again full of energy and the melodies swagger along with the high energy of the roaring twenties in full swing.
The Rhapsody was written in 1931 six years after the Concerto and as the result of a commission from Fox Studios to write a score for a motion picture entitled “Delicious” starring Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. It is pure Hollywood and was originally going to be titled New York Rhapsody but Gershwin changed his mind again and it gained its current title.
I got Rhythm Variations need no introduction to music theatre buffs and again Gershwin gives it the full treatment and the Buffalo Philharmonic and Weiss give it all they’ve got. Well worth a listen. JN
Audiophilia Recommended New Releases - Update 30/1/12
Dvorak etc. – “From the New World” [59:09]
Youth Orchestra of the Americas / J-P Hamelin
Fidelio FACD029 (2011)
If the term “youth orchestra” evokes memories of torturous evenings at your kids’ school, then relax – as anyone who’s heard Gustavo Dudamel’s recordings with his fresh-faced Venezuelan musicians can confirm, they may be young but they stand comparison with the best. The feature work here is Dvorak’s ever-popular Symphony No.9 “From the New World”, joined by two shorter pieces from contemporary composers, Mexico’s Arturo Marquez and Canadian John Estacio.
Having been written during Dvorak’s three years of employment in New York, the New World Symphony (the name was the composer’s own) is not, as I almost carelessly described it, a 20th Century work, having premiered in 1893. The common myth that it contains direct references to American folk music is also mistaken; Dvorak’s description of it as Czech music that could not have existed had he not known America is thought to refer primarily to the literary inspiration of Longfellow’s poem, “The Song of Hiawatha”. Best known, of course, is the unmistakeable cor anglais theme from the Largo – which UK readers will recognise as the “Hovis music” from a long-running ad campaign! Compared to Leonard Slatkin’s famous recording on Telarc, which I feel allows this movement to become too languorous, Hamelin maintains a better focus. I also particularly like his slower pacing in the closing Allegro movement, which lends it more grandeur.
For the recording, Fidelio employed the latest cutting-edge digital technology while utilising only a single pair of tube microphones and, with advertising for the extreme hi-end dCS company also appearing in the CD booklet, you get the hint that sound quality was a major consideration here! Initially, I was a little disappointed, but following the printed advice to turn the volume up (due to the absence of compression in the mix) did the trick; the recording has tremendous weight, scale and dynamics, though a slightly wooden and diffuse quality to the bass that is most likely a characteristic of the hall. Still, it will join the ranks of my reference discs and, considering the excellent music, is strongly recommended. AF
F. Couperin – Concerts Royaux [55:00]
Bruce Haynes - Oboe
Atma ACD2 2168 (2011/1999)
I recall how, when I first started listening to period instrument recordings of Baroque music, it was the sound of the oboe that seemed most shocking – capable of a raucous, almost trumpet-like brilliance, far removed from the refined tone of the modern instrument. This disc was originally recorded to celebrate the sound of a 1700 Naust hautboy (our ‘oboe’ is an Italian word, phonetically derived from the original French ‘hautbois’); the oldest still in regular use though, requiring repair, it was too fragile to play throughout the recording session and a modern reproduction of a very similar contemporary instrument mostly stands in. You can actually tell them apart – the original’s sound more nasal, the copy more throaty – though I’m a little ashamed to admit that I prefer the copy! Now, it has been re-released to commemorate the life of Bruce Haynes, a key figure in the revival of early woodwinds who passed away last year.
The extended musical Couperin family can cause some confusion; of the three brothers – Louis, Francois and Charles – it was the latter’s son, also Francois, who came to be the best known. A favourite of Louis XIV (and prime mover behind the Concerts Spirituels, which did so much to popularise Italian music in Baroque France), these pieces were written for performance at the royal court and their stylish, tender nobility is the perfect showcase for the ravishing tone of Haynes’ oboe, and for his two highly credentialed cohorts; Susie Napper on viola da gamba and Arthur Haas on harpsichord. The oboe is pushed well forward in the mix, as you’d expect, but the overall balance is excellent, the acoustics of the recording venue ideal and the sound quality superb – top work again, Atma! AF
Haydn – Baryton Trios “The Private Pleasure of Prince Esterhazy” [65:08]
Finnish Baryton Trio
SIBA SACD 1001 (2011)
In an era when composers, even those as popular as Mozart was with his contemporary Viennese audience, faced an uncertain financial outlook without the patronage of nobility, Haydn would have considered himself extremely lucky to secure almost lifelong employment with the Esterhazy family. His position as Court Composer placed him, within the domestic hierarchy, on the level of a butler, yet Prince Nikolaus – against social convention – treated Haydn in a friendly fashion, and the composer lavishly indulged the prince’s passion for the baryton in return. This strange instrument, deformed second-cousin to a cello, has a set of metal resonating strings that, in addition to filling out the sound of the six or seven bowed strings, can also be plucked with the left hand to provide a rudimentary accompaniment.
Between 1762 and 1775, Haydn created 175 works for baryton with various instruments, all of them intended for private performance by the Prince himself. The five trios performed here come from far the largest group, written for a supporting cello and viola. Their overlapping registers endow the music with a dark, moody character that, in the slow movements, seems at times more reminiscent of gamba music and even English viol music from a century or so earlier, than anything we would immediately associate with Haydn. Otherwise, there is little to suggest that the Prince’s level of ability significantly compromised Haydn’s writing, and in the quicker movements we hear clear echoes of the string quartets that were among Haydn’s most brilliant legacies.
This is the first self-produced recording from Finland’s Sibelius Academy, from which the musicians all graduated, and the use of high resolution DXD (Digital eXtreme Definition) technology suggests that ample attention has been paid to sound quality. It certainly is a very fine recording, and a perfect introduction to the unusual sound of this long obsolete instrument. Though there are some epic complete recordings of these works available, I think this one will do me just fine! AF
‘Echoes of Paris’ – Violin Sonatas [71:40]
Augustin Hadelich – Violin, Robert Kulek – Piano
Avie AV2216 (2011)
This disc celebrates the artistic milieu that brought the cream of Europe’s creative élite to Paris in the first half of the 20th Century – names like Joyce, Picasso, Orwell, Nabokov (briefly!) and the four composers featured here; Poulenc, Stravinsky, Debussy and Prokofiev. Lauded young violinist Augustin Hadelich – joined here by experienced accompanist Robert Kulek – explains the reasoning behind his selection of sonatas as ‘they fit together really well’ … and he’s right, they do.
Composed between 1917 and 1943, the earliest work happens to be Debussy’s swansong; a strangely formless, impressionistic mix of diverse musical influences that keeps the listener guessing throughout. Poulenc is a composer I tend to associate with elegant works for the flute, but this sonata memorialises the Spanish poet Lorca, a victim of Franco’s fascists. Alternating jaggedly intense themes with lyrically mournful passages, it strangely did not satisfy its creator – I tend to agree with Hadelich’s much higher opinion of its merits.
Stravinsky’s ‘Suite after Pergolesi’ was also featured on Ray Chen’s recent all-Stravinsky disc that I enjoyed so much (Melba MR301128, reviewed last year); both opting for the earlier, trickier transcription, though I find Chen’s rendition more luminous and gripping, with Melba’s sound quality also superior. That takes nothing away from Hadelich and Kulek, though, nor from a thoroughly pleasurable disc benefitting from Avie’s typically fine recording and excellent balance. AF
Kreisler/Zimbalist – String Quartets
Ysaye – Harmonies du Soir
Fine Arts Quartet
Philharmonic Orchestra of Europe
Schnabel – String Quartet no 1
Noa Frenkel – Alto
Irmela Roelcke - Piano
CPO 777 622 – 2
My viola teacher, the celebrated Keith Cummings, once told me an intriguing story about being in New York during the Second World War on tour with the RAF orchestra. He received a call from Kreisler asking if he was free to play chamber music one afternoon and when he turned up at Kreisler’s apartment he found Zimbalist playing 2nd Violin and the great Russian cellist Piatagorsky tuning his cello. That session would no doubt have become a legendary recording and I can only wonder at what a sound they made that afternoon!
Kreisler was probably the most well known violinist of the 20th century and both he and Zimbalist were the greatest of friends working together and recording. Kreisler is probably best known today for his ‘Miniatures’ which he used to play as encores. Yet, he and Zimbalist wrote much more substantial music, including operettas from both composers, each of which were staged on Broadway with glittering first nights. Such, was their fame.
The Quartets presented here were written in 1919 and 1931 respectively and are both well crafted and effective works with strong, meaty string sounds as you would expect from such players. The Fine Arts Quartet is on excellent form relishing the challenge and producing very polished performances.
The Schnabel Quartet however is a real find. Written in 1918, its rich chromaticism, rapid key changes and driving rhythms offer a very different experience and the exhilarating performance from the Pellegrini Quartet really sold it.
Schnabel was not only a legendary pianist but also a noted educationalist lecturing worldwide. He shows here what an original talent he had. The Notturno was written in 1914 and its influences include Schoenberg with a touch of Mahler. Noa Frenkel and Irmela Roelcke show true empathy with the composer’s style and it forms a good contrast to the power of the Quartet. JN