Mahler – Symphony No.4 (Chamber Arrangement) [64:38]
Royal Academy of Music Soloists Ensemble / Hall
Linn SACD CKD438 (2013)
One of the most compellingly unexpected discs to cross my path in recent years comprises obscure chamber arrangements of iconic fin de siècle orchestral works … conducted by Baroque period instrument maven, Trevor Pinnock. Before this gets any weirder, some explanation is in order! Amidst the social upheaval surrounding the First World War and Russian Revolution, Arnold Schoenberg rebelled against the commoditisation of music in post-war Vienna (come back, Arnold!) by introducing subscription concerts that often featured chamber arrangements of orchestral music by contemporary composers, based around wind instruments, a string quintet, harmonium and piano. While lack of resources was a factor, Schoenberg was fascinated by the potential of these reductions to cast a new perspective on the work – as am I, consistently across the broadest range of repertoire, though I’m not sure my editor always agrees!
The disc opens with Debussy’s ever-popular (though controversial in its day)”Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune”, from which the composer himself had already created a miniature for piano; so successful is the reduction performed here that there is no obvious sense of anything missing compared to the familiar orchestral version, while the work’s intrinsic delicacy and eroticism is beautifully emphasised by the ensemble. Mahler’s Fourth Symphony was devised on a smaller scale than its epic forebears, easing its adaptation here for fourteen instruments plus soprano voice. To what extent it is successful is hard for me to judge; the Fourth is the only one of his Symphonies which I don’t have on disc. In truth, I have never been a fan of Mahler, finding his music curiously remote and disjointed; from that unpromising standpoint, though, I can say that I have never enjoyed any Mahler as much as this. Put that down to a combination of the open texture, melodic clarity and sense of intimacy provided by the chamber ensemble, a confident and very sensitive performance, and the fine sound quality of Linn’s recording (on hybrid, multichannel SACD); spacious and realistic, if a tad ‘loud’. AF
Schubert – Octet [62:04]
Amaryllis Quartet etc.
Genuin GEN13269 (2013)
Everything about Schubert’s Octet is unusual or unprecedented – its scoring (for string quartet plus double bass, horn, bassoon and clarinet), its six movement structure and, at over an hour, its extreme length for a piece of chamber music. Yet it is considered not only one of Schubert’s very finest works, but also among the crown jewels of the chamber music genre. It is a piece that fascinates me because I can never seem to find its full measure; buried within its many facets, there is a message which seems to be perpetually elusive. It veers from grand and monumental (the opening movement) through tenderness and uncertainty to a stately finish, as the composer exploits the almost symphonic array of tonal options that his ensemble offers. A late work from around 1824, it is reassuring to know that Schubert did at least get to hear it performed, not long before his premature demise.
This is not only a challenging composition for the listener, but for the musicians and the recording engineer too; in this case, everyone succeeds admirably. The performance is engaging throughout – the tempos fast and exciting when they can be, mellow and reflective when they need to be – and the recording is beautifully soundstaged and balanced; in all respects, the best version I have heard of this vital work. AF
Shostakovich – Cello Concertos [58:12]
Dmitry Kouzov – Cello, St Petersburg State Symphony / Lande
Delos DE3444 (2013)
The CD’s liner notes suggest that the first of Shostakovich’s two cello concertos could be the most popular such work of the Twentieth Century – a claim that fans of Elgar’s immortal offering in the genre will greet with incredulity! It does, though, give an indication of the status of these works, and why I was so keen to plug this gaping hole in my own collection. The First, written in 1959, is built around variations of Shostakovich’s four-note musical ‘signature’, instantly reminiscent of the wonderful (and almost contemporary) Chamber Symphony / Eighth String Quartet. This is a similarly gloomy work, plaintive and unsettled at its heart, though it resolves its anxiety in moments of transfixing beauty and a spirited finale. The Second Cello Concerto, which followed almost seven years later, seems even more troubled and structurally ambivalent than the First – a work that embodies several moods, all of them dark, with a sense of fluid formlessness that I suspect would endear it to jazz fans.
This recording carries a special ‘authenticity’ in that cellist Dmitry Kouzov worked, some years ago, on the First Concerto with the towering figure of Twentieth Century Russian music, Mstislav Rostropovich, the original dedicatee of both of these works. We can assume, then, that the First Concerto at least closely aligns with the composer’s intentions … which may be important for those seeking alternative versions. As I’ve observed before, something special seems to happen whenever Russian musicians play Russian music, and so it is here – this is a taut and intense performance, and a very nice recording that needs some volume to bring it to life; crisply dynamic, with realistic orchestral timbres and perspectives, though at times I would have liked the soloist a little more prominent in the mix. AF
Mozart – Symphonies Vol.2 (1767-8) [60:26]
Danish National Chamber Orchestra / Fischer
Da Capo SACD DRS13 (2013)
That Mozart had the keen instinct of an entertainer from a ridiculously young age is clear from these early symphonies, created when he was just 11 or 12 years old – not long before that same instinct and passion for the theatre would bring his first great operatic success. Far from the monumental embodiment of high art it would become – and Mozart was as much responsible for that transition as anybody – the mid-18th Century symphony was a disposable form of pure entertainment, used as background music for social occasions or to settle an unruly and often unappreciative audience. Beyond his traditional forty-one numbered works, which include some since discredited, are several more now accepted as authentic and still others of dubious provenance – one from each category is included here (K45A/B) along with the 6th, 7th and 8th, which follow the four-movement model (not yet generally accepted at that time) and seem to have been written during an extended stay in Vienna. While very familiar with Mozart’s late symphonies, I had no knowledge of his earliest attempts in the genre … and was thus astonished by their confidence, sophistication and maturity, combined with youthful vigour. Though the 6th and 7th are less complex, thematically and harmonically, than Haydn’s contemporary works, the 8th bears obvious hallmarks of the illustrious masterpieces that would follow.
While labelled as the second volume of this series, they have been released out of sequence and the concluding volumes eleven and twelve are about to appear – along with the ‘Complete’ boxed set. A revisionist approach has seen the exclusion of discredited symphonies and those merely rearranged from earlier pieces, with the restoration of genuine unnumbered works bringing the total back to 45 symphonies … the debate will continue! Returning to Volume 2, the generic nature of its liner notes is a little disappointing but, while some reference to the disc’s contents would have been nice, the fact is that precious little is known about these pieces, or even this period of Mozart’s life. Performed on modern instruments in the historically-informed style one would expect from Adam Fischer, there has been broad critical acclaim for the musicianship and interpretations (gratifyingly energetic) across this series, but some dispute over the recording quality. The impressiveness that most listeners have praised derives, I suspect, from an unnaturally foreshortened closeness and slight glassiness; this gave me little concern but could, I imagine, rankle on an unsympathetic system. AF
Shostakovich — Symphony No 4 [64.57]
RLPO / Vasily Petrenko
Naxos 8.573188 (2013)
In the last forty years concertgoers have been drawn increasingly to the large scale orchestral works of not only Mahler but also Bruckner, and most importantly perhaps Shostakovich. I remember performances of the symphonies in the 1970s which were hailed as breakthroughs which finally nailed the coffin of the twelve tone serialists and left audiences wanting more of these large scale pragmatic orchestral works with their sense of unknown outcomes.
The 4th Symphony of Shostakovich is the most dense outpouring of his creative thoughts and doubts, and led the composer to withdraw it from performance on the very day of its proposed premier. Due to the prevailing Russian political scene, it was only during the Khrushchev era that it finally saw the light of day with Kondrashin and the Moscow Philharmonic on the 30th December 1961. Performances followed around the world and although sparsely recorded in comparison with the other Shostakovich symphonies, it is now considered probably his finest work in the canon.
Petrenko and the RLPO have recorded a dazzling performance that gets to the very heart of the piece, he has a sure feel for the composer and whilst driving the music on he brings out the ethereal quality and quirkiness of the rhythms to stunning effect.
The recorded sound is superb and the orchestra are on top form throughout with transparent textures even in the most explosive moments.
A must have performance to add to the other fine interpretations in this cycle. JN
AK adds his two cents to JN’s Shostakovich review.
This mesmerizing mess of a symphony has been a favourite of mine since my father purchased the 1968 CBS LP with Philly/Ormandy shortly after its release. As a kid, I remember the ugly, blue paint streaked cover and the odd sounds coming from the speakers. Yet, it fascinated me. The fascination has never waned.
Compared to Shostakovich’s two greatest Symphonies (5 and 10), the 4th’s structure and form do not compare well, yet it is filled to the brim with brilliant ideas, incredible power, and unique orchestrations. If you don’t know the symphony, I urge all Audiophilia readers to get know to the work and the history behind its composition.
Our readers could not receive a better introduction than by listening to this new Naxos release. It’s part of the continuing Shostakovich Symphony cycle conducted by the young Russian, Vassily Petrenko and his much improved Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.
The definitive recording has yet to be released (there are several recordings of the 4th, but few as good as this Naxos — Jansons/BRSO/EMI is one alternative that is extremely well played) but Petrenko really gets in the deep heart of this work. You’ll hear magical counterpoint and subtle orchestration that is lost on other conductors and not heard in their recordings.
The big picture — the huge sounds and the unwieldy musical form — will thrill you as played by the Liverpool orchestra. Under the scrutiny of headphones, the band can’t match the technically flawless Chicago Symphony (Haitink/Decca and Previn/EMI) or the tone of the Bavarian Radio orchestra, but the players come damn close. As for interpretation, Petrenko captures the mercurial Shostakovich at his very best.
The recording is not quite as well balanced as others in the cycle (some instrumental highlighting which gives an odd perspective at times), but don’t let that deter you from acquiring the most interesting performance of this happily mad symphony.
The Phoenix Rising [74.34]
harmonia mundi HMU807572 (2013)
The Tudor Church Songbook is a rich tapestry of creativity and highlights some of England’s greatest composers — Thomas Tallis, William Byrd and Thomas Morley, among others. Almost 450 years separates the music of today with the brilliant selections on this new Stile Antico release — their contribution in helping the revival of Tudor church music. Musically, how far have we come? This music is sophisticated, voiced brilliantly and is heartbreakingly beautiful.
It is stunningly recorded by Harmonia Mundi where every vowel is round and fat and every consonant, tactile. The tuning is flawless and the musicality is exceptional. Stile Antico is a wonderful young group of British singers. They have the genes of The Kings’ Singers, The Tallis Scholars, The Sixteen and a host of British professional small choirs that precede them.
Buy this CD. Turn up the fire, lower the lights and be transported to another time. After the CD is finished and you open your eyes, you may wish to go back. ASAP. Hypnotic and highly recommended. AK
I have always thought of the Fourth Symphony as being closest to what Tchaikovsky was like as a person – moments of romantic yearning coupled with near points of hysteria and dramatic mood swings — it makes this one of the most popular works in the repertoire. Karajan and Szell recorded high voltage performances during the 1960s with the BPO and LSO respectively which are among my favourites. Stokowski always maintained that the tempo changes have to be carefully observed in order to bring it off well. His recording with the American Symphony in 1972 on Vanguard has some eye watering tempo changes. Barbirolli with the Hallé also recorded a fine version in early stereo which is worth a listen.
So, were does this leave Kitajenko in the scope of things?
He follows closely along the lines of Mavrinsky in his famous 1960 account with the Leningrad Philharmonic (his timings are nearly identical) and adopts slightly slower tempos laying out the climaxes with less hysteria but using the orchestral sound as a wall of power which rolls over you like a wave. He benefits from having SACD sound which gives great clarity to the textures and serves his interpretation well, showing the Gurzenich Orchestra in fine form.
For the sound alone, it’s worth adding to your collection of this most dramatic of symphonies. JN
Tchaikovsky — Symphony No 5; Swan Lake Suite [58:02]
Arctic Philharmonic Orchestra / Christian Lindberg
The Arctic Philharmonic is the most northerly based orchestra in the world, and to emphasize the orchestra’s unique location, the players are shown on a photograph standing on a Norwegian ice cap in full concert dress. I hope no instruments suffered during the taking of the photograph!
Lindberg conducts a fine no nonsense reading of the symphony bringing out some interesting details and letting the musical phrasing speak for itself whilst allowing the orchestra to pack plenty of punch in the brass when needed. He also benefits from SACD sound which shows the orchestra off well.
I would have preferred just a little more warmth in the upper strings but perhaps it was a cold day. Worth a listen and ideal if you have a good surround sound system. JN
Regular readers of Audiophilia will know that the publisher and myself leave no stone unturned to bring you the best in Bruckner performances on CD, and this release is no exception.
Marek Janowski is well known for his fine performances of Wagner so it comes as no surprise that his reading of Bruckner’s First Symphony is equally dramatic. The key to conducting Bruckner lies in the conductor’s ability to handle the structure and harmonic progressions of these large scale symphonies without them sounding stilted or ungainly. Janowski solves these dilemmas by presenting a high energy account which takes no prisoners and piles on the drama with no sense of a rallentando. The climaxes roll and blaze and you are left feeling breathless at the end. The Suisse Romande Orchestra members leave nothing on the stand!
Janowski uses the revised Novak edition of the 1866 score which simplifies some of the orchestration and listeners may be interested in listening to the original unedited version performed by George Tintner and the RSNO on Naxos 8.554430. Tintner adopts slower speeds in all the movements and invites you to view and enjoy the peaks of the work by slightly pulling back the tempo at key points. This, however, is another fine performance of a much neglected work — one of the most assured first symphonies ever written.
Both versions are worth acquiring, but if you already have the Tintner it’s still worth getting Janowski for his energy and sense of drama. JN
Haydn & Myslivecek – Cello Concertos [73:05]
Wendy Warner – Cello, Camerata Chicago / Hall
Cedille CDR 90000142 (2013)
Since first encountering the two Haydn Cello Concertos in an earlier RNR review of a recording by Wen-Sinn Yang (Oehms 00782), they have become firm favourites of mine; particularly the First, a lovely example of early Classical form whose melodies always stay in my head for hours afterwards. Written for the small Esterhazy court orchestra in the early 1760s, it was only rediscovered exactly 200 years later. Its sister work postdates it by two decades, is barely less attractive and considered among the most challenging works in the cello repertoire.
The “filler” concerto by Haydn’s Czech contemporary, Myslivecek, is intriguing. A family friend of the Mozarts and prolific composer of instrumental works and successful operas in his adopted Italy, his current obscurity is one of those curious quirks of history. That said, I did not greatly warm to this cello concerto, though the slow movement is lovely. Its writing did not seem idiomatically best suited to its solo instrument, an observation later explained by it actually being an arrangement of a violin concerto. Still, top marks for the originality of the choice!
Wendy Warner’s performance of the Haydn concertos is warm, ebullient and sonorous; as with the Oehms recording, the interpretation seems more modern than period-inspired, while the backing from the chamber orchestra is perfectly balanced. In Cedille tradition, the recording quality is excellent too – for me, overall much preferable to the more austere-sounding Oehms disc. AF
Mendelssohn – Violin Concerto / Symphony No.4 [56:03]
Zsolt Kallo – Violin, Capella Savaria / McGegan
Centaur CRC3287 (2013)
It seems that Felix Mendelssohn is the only composer in history whose youthful prodigy might in some way compare to that of music’s supreme genius, Wolfgang Mozart. Yet, Mendelssohn’s works have never cemented themselves into the popular consciousness like the other greats – if we exclude the “Wedding March”, of course! The two compositions featured here are certainly among his best-loved, and make an attractive coupling, but hold special interest for the connoisseur by virtue of being performed in their alternative, lesser-known versions. The genial “Italian” Symphony – so called as it was largely written during a trip to Italy – is an early work whose bracing opening movement will be familiar to many; though I doubt it has often been performed with the mesmerising vigour and intensity shown here, the same going for the finale. Mendelssohn was unhappy with the piece and quickly revised the last three movements, but never got around to the first; it is this partial revision that’s performed here. Apparently, the changes are quite significant but, despite it being a work I’ve owned for many years, I’m not sufficiently familiar with it to spot them!
The Violin Concerto is his last large orchestral composition, completed in 1844 after a lengthy gestation but revised the following year when its inspirer, a violinist friend, provided input into the solo parts, especially. This time it is the earlier version that we get – though, again, I can’t say the differences leapt out at me. The opening theme (whose flavour seems strongly Slavic) is one of several memorable melodies in a work considered the jewel of the romantic-era violin concertos, but which I’ve never really taken to heart before; other recordings, including James Ehnes’ recent one on Onyx, have featured a performance style too lush and syrupy for my taste. Period instrument performance of works this late is rare, but under the baton of the impeccable Nicholas McGegan (of Philharmonia Baroque fame) this fine Hungarian chamber orchestra produce refreshingly lithe, energetic and thrillingly ‘raw’ sounding readings that force you to re-evaluate them. Excellent recording quality sets the seal on a fine disc that I’m sure I shall revisit often. AF
JG & CH Graun – Trios for Violin or Viola & Clavier [68:24]
Les Amis de Philippe
CPO 777 633-2 (2013)
Having received a namecheck in a recent RNR, I wasn’t going to let this rare opportunity to hear the music of JG Graun get away. Both Johann and his younger brother, Carl, grew up in the dynamic musical environment of early 18th Century Dresden and were later employed in the court of Frederick the Great. While Johann’s fame is the greater, both brothers contributed to the known corpus of 136 trios that constitutes their primary legacy, and whose popularity spread across Europe; determining date of composition and even authorship is often impossible, hence the dual accreditation. The special quirk of this recording quickly becomes apparent when the music starts to play – there’s an instrument missing! It transpires that the Grauns arranged a number of their trios for a single melody instrument and keyboard (a fortepiano is used here), with the latter given a solo voice far removed from its traditional role as mere continuo.
Although believed to have been composed between 1730 and 1765, the four trios (all of which are linked to Dresden) have a distinctly more modern feel to them – reminiscent of duo sonatas from much later in the century, and indicative of the sophistication of that city’s musical taste. Even the earliest piece shows an originality, freedom of form and expressiveness unusual at a time when stylistic conventions exerted a strong hold on most composers. A very nice recording – not too close, with some room acoustic adding character to the sound – completes a surprising and appealing disc. AF
Yarlung Records – The First Seven Years (Sampler) [79:39]
Yarlung 96821 (2013)
Should I have to apologise for including a sampler here?! Probably not, but I will anyway. In my mind, and no doubt unfairly, samplers are associated with audiophile nerdiness, yet they’re undeniably a great way to get up to speed with what a record label is doing … and Yarlung has a more interesting story than most. With minimalist microphone techniques, purist direct to two track analogue recordings, the involvement of star masterer Steve Hoffman, an eclectic choice of repertoire and advocacy from Stereophile, these Californians have quickly captured the attention of audiophiles globally, despite a mere 25 album releases.
The question foremost in my mind was, given the consistently high sound quality of all modern mainstream and independent label classical releases, how much better can Yarlung’s recordings sound? Well, let me preface my answer by observing that the disc is mastered at a higher level than it should be, giving it that unnatural sense of presence that audiophiles typically seem to fall for. However, the smoothness, clarity and transparency of these recordings is obviously exceptional, culminating in Lutoslawski’s “Dialoghi” – a piano and cello duet that has quickly become an accepted audiophile reference, and no wonder. While you can’t fault the variety on offer, a number of the sixteen tracks on this generously-filled disc are not at all to my musical taste – including the Lutoslawski and some mundane audiophile fodder; a four minute tabla solo is four minutes of my life I’ll never get back! – while the predominantly slow tempos don’t help. Still, I’ve been thoroughly curious about Yarlung since their very first release (an Australian pianist … just saying!) and, for very little money, this disc has allowed me to scratch that seven year itch! AF
Handel – Water Music [61:15]
Haydn Sinfonietta Wien / Manfred Huss
If Handel returned to London today he would no doubt be pleased that his house on Brook Street in Mayfair is still very much in existence and his reputation as a British composer unparalleled [Ahem! - Ed]. He would be shocked however to find that the River Thames once the lifeblood of the city is a very different place today than when he wrote his Water Music for King George in 1717. The Thames today is a strong tidal river, however, without the modern fortifications on the embankment to hold it in place the river bank was very marshy and without the roar of the traffic and 21st Century noise it was easy to float a barge full of musicians to accompany the King’s journey to Chelsea.
The resulting work that Handel wrote is amongst the most well known in the world and the Haydn Sinfonietta led by Simon Standish give it a fresh coat of paint and a very agreeable one at that.
Handel was the master of the good tune and these movements abound with them expertly played and delivered with a flourish that will put a spring in your step and brighten any dull day. Fresh research discovery has made some new conclusions about movement order — the movements are given the new order as befits the original performance schedule.
A good way to while away an hour with a good bottle of wine! JN
Quantz – Flute Concertos [77:36]
Mary Oleskiewicz – Baroque Flute, Concerto Armonico / Spanyi
Naxos 8.573120 (2013)
Having mentioned Quantz in passing only last month, coincidentally we have a new collection of the maestro’s flute concertos – excitingly, all are world premiere recordings. With the exception of our esteemed editor, there has probably been no more important figure in the history of the flute than Johann Quantz [okay, that's it, I'm doubling your pay! - Ed], who was responsible for technical improvements to the instrument, author of an important treatise on technique [On Playing the Flute] and composer of some 300 concertos for it, plus another 200 sonatas. The solo concerto, in the form we now recognise it, began to appear around 1700; initially for strings but with examples for oboe, bassoon and recorder quickly emerging from Italy. However, the flute’s popularity at the time was patchy across Europe and Quantz, working in Germany, was among the first to write for it. He composed actively over five decades, and the four works performed here (including his very last) appear to span much of that period.
Well travelled and connected, he was much influenced by the Italian style during his early years in Dresden and would later be an early adopter of the classical ‘galant’ style which, marks most of his writing for the court of King Frederick. This is especially clear when comparing his music to Janitsch, who remained largely rooted in the Baroque. Anyway, I’ll quickly recount a lovely story concerning Quantz’s final concerto - left unfinished at his death, its closing movement was later supplied by a former pupil and sometime composer whose creative aspirations had long since been abandoned … none other than King Frederick himself, in a last tribute to his employee and friend!
Quantz’s music, as performed here, has a grace and elegance that is utterly charming and perfectly in tune with the special sonority of a flute backed by strings – which perhaps goes without saying, given the amount of practice he had. The small but authentically-proportioned Concerto Armonico specialise in the music of Frederick’s Berlin court and their effortlessly accomplished playing is served by an equally fine recording, the flute captured with especial transparency. AF
Haydn – Piano Trios Vol. 4 [75:45]
Mendelssohn Piano Trio
Centaur CRC3292 (2013)
Having effectively invented the piano trio format, Haydn was to compose a total of 45 of them right across his long career – with something of a surge towards the end, as he had the opportunity to exploit their burgeoning popularity with late 18th Century amateur musicians. Hence, although it has taken me until volume 4 to catch up with this new cycle, there will be several more releases to come. I previously reviewed a recording using the type of fortepiano with which Haydn would have been familiar (by the Trio Goya, Chandos 0771) – indeed, the earliest trios would have been written for harpsichord – but the Mendelssohn Trio take the more common option of a modern concert grand for its fuller, richer sound.
The pieces chosen for this disc cover a very broad timespan, from one of Haydn’s first to a couple from the time of his second visit to London in 1795. These later works are especially brilliant and find Haydn at the peak of his powers and in a sunny frame of mind, as he traded the artistically stifling atmosphere of the Esterhazy court for the celebrity and financial rewards accorded him by an adoring English audience. My attention was drawn to this cycle by the critical acclaim for earlier volumes (plus the chance of a first brush with the Louisiana-based Centaur label) and the critics were right; performances are beautifully measured – warm, sonorous and lively – and the recording is very natural and spacious. AF
Vivaldi – Violin Sonatas [65:43]
ERP 6613 (2013)
The ever-growing interest in Vivaldi’s music in recent times has very much concentrated on the concertos, to the extent that his many other areas of endeavour are largely unknown. The French label, Naive, has done much to redress this situation through its new recordings of operas, sacred music and the Opus 1 Trio Sonatas … and the Baltic Baroque now joins them in seeking to bring more previously unheard Vivaldi to light. Featured here are six ‘solo’ violin sonatas – a single violin backed by cello and harpsichord – and, to an even greater extent than the Trio Sonatas I reviewed last year, this music is highly uncharacteristic. Mostly following the four-movement, slow-fast-slow-fast pattern of the church sonata, there is a greater sense of pensiveness and restraint in the way the (often achingly lovely) melodies are allowed to unfold, and strong echoes of Corelli’s famous Opus 5 Violin Sonatas throughout. This is the more surprising as these works are apparently much later than the 1705 Trio Sonatas, dating from the publication of Vivaldi’s own Opus 5 Sonatas in 1716 and subsequent. They also contrast strongly with Handel’s similar (though later still) works, which engage violin and cello in hearty dialogue while Vivaldi’s generally emphasise their ‘solo’ nature.
As exciting as a set of world premiere recordings always is, the fact that strong doubts hang over the authenticity of most of these works as genuinely of Vivaldi’s hand – discussed in detail in the liner notes – is a bit of a downer. Still, much the same could be said of Handel’s sonatas, and the recording is certainly a sonic treat, thanks to a richly reverberant acoustic and its transparency and natural balance. AF
Janitsch – Sonate Da Camera Vol. 3 [63:08]
Notturna / Christopher Palameta
Atma ACD2 2626 (2013)
King Frederick the Great of Prussia probably wouldn’t thank me for labelling him the Simon Cowell of his day, but the enlightened monarch and keen musician hired some top-flight court composers, including Graun, Quantz and CPE Bach. Berlin native Johann Janitsch was employed merely as a bass player in the royal orchestra, yet he wrote much fine chamber music, including over 40 sonatas in four parts (that is, for four solo instruments with a harpsichord continuo). As so often in this period, dating individual works can be difficult; the five pieces featured on this disc mostly seem to originate from the 1750s, the point where the Baroque was starting to transition to the Classical era. With a few forward-looking exceptions, Janitsch’s thorough exposition of counterpoint means that, stylistically, these pieces predominantly reference the former.
The Canadian ensemble, Notturna, has championed the cause of these neglected compositions, this being the third disc in a series dedicated to reviving Janitsch. It is very easy to understand (and share!) their enthusiasm – the variety of instrumental combinations (for this release, always including an oboe combined with other wind and string instruments in a characteristically German fashion) and the tasteful, sophisticated writing is hugely appealing. As with other Atma discs, recording quality and balance are also top-notch … assuming you like the slightly exaggerated sense of presence that results from the close mic’ing, which nearly everybody does! All other considerations aside, it is hard to overstate just how sublimely pleasurable is the sound of a small, mixed ensemble of period instruments; if you’re surveying a crowded marketplace looking to dip a toe into this style of repertoire, this disc would be a great place to start. I’m still kicking myself for missing the first two volumes. AF
Mussorgsky – Pictures from an Exhibition / Prokofiev – Visions Fugitives [65:58]
Steven Osborne - Piano
Hyperion CDA67896 (2013)
Many will be familiar with Ravel’s orchestrated version of Mussorgsky’s most famous work (I take it on trust that the alternative title often attributed, ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’, is a mistranslation), and others with Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s rock version … but fewer, I suspect, will have heard it in its intended form, for solo piano. Mussorgsky wrote it in tribute to a recently-deceased artist friend, recording his feelings as he walked around a memorial exhibition of the man’s paintings and bringing some of them briefly to life.
While the piano can sound a little threadbare for those used to the orchestration, it renders a more sensitive – and, needless to say, more authentic – expression of what Mussorgsky was trying to say; each version has its special appeal. Also offered are works by another composer not best known for his solo piano pieces, Serge Prokofiev; the twenty Visions fugitives from 1917 and the slightly earlier, wonderfully named Sarcasms with which he sought, perhaps, to establish his own place in the contemporary avant garde.
I am a big fan of Osborne’s recordings of Debussy, Ravel and Rachmaninov, in light of which his choice of the Prokofiev works makes perfect sense; he brings some of his Debussyan sensibility to the Visions, and finds an accessibility in the spiky, angular Sarcasms that few others could achieve. The highly cerebral nature of his playing, though, casts a dark intensity over Pictures which contrasts with the sunnier (and pacier) version by Freddy Kempf (BIS 1580), a long-term favourite of mine. It took a couple of listens to warm to it, but there is something genuinely magnetic in the tension that Osborne generates and, combined with the slightly superior Hyperion recording, means that I shall return to it just as often as Kempf’s version in future, I suspect. AF
Villa-Lobos – Symphonies 3 & 4 [63:09]
Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra / Katabtchevsky
Naxos 8.573151 (2013)
South America has a long and surprising history of classical music, dating back to the Spanish colonisation, but its most famous son is certainly the Brazilian native, Heitor Villa-Lobos. Brazil’s involvement in the First World War was both late and peripheral, but that didn’t stop the government commissioning a set of three symphonies from the still relatively inexperienced composer upon the conclusion of hostilities. Work started in 1919 and was completed the following year – ‘War’, ‘Victory’ and ‘Peace’ became his 3rd, 4th and 5th Symphonies, though it’s unclear whether he actually finished the latter, which was never performed and is now recorded as lost. It was to be a quarter-century until he returned to the symphonic genre, adding numbers 6 to 12 in the latter years of his career.
I sense a growing interest of late in the music of Villa-Lobos, but the symphonies are not amongst his best-known works and are new to me. Much is made of the assimilation of Brazilian street music into his style, but these early works are firmly rooted in the European classical tradition and, if I am hard-pressed to hear much that is unequivocally South American in them, still they are distinctively different from the symphonies coming out of Russia or England at the time. ‘War’ made the greater impression on me, its programmatic movement titles (’Life and Labour’, ‘Intrigues and Rumours’ and the lengthy ‘Suffering’) symptomatic of the prevailing socialist-realist perspective and devoid of triumphalism, culminating in a thrilling ‘The Battle’ with fusillades of cannon fire from the bass drum.
This is the second disc in Naxos’s project to record all of the Villa-Lobos symphonies, appropriately with a Brazilian orchestra and conductor; the recorded perspective is close and dynamic, though still with a vivid sense of space. Anyone with an interest in 20th Century symphonies should certainly check this out. AF
Schubert – Symphonies 1-8 [233 mins]
Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks / Lorin Maazel
BR Klassik 900712 (2013)
One of the core aims of our Recommended New Releases feature is to help those still discovering the vast and confusing world of classical music to build a collection of essential, great-sounding discs. Hence, there’s not much gets me as excited as a thick slab of standard repertoire at a budget price (especially now that Jennifer Aniston is off the market!). While not as well-known as Beethoven’s contributions to the oeuvre, if there’s any doubt that all of these magnificent symphonies belong in your collection then these recordings do a great job of dispelling it.
Schubert really is a fascinatingly unique figure in musical history; a man who composed prolifically while operating entirely outside the musical establishment and whose genius was recognised, during his tragically short life, by only a handful of close admirers. None of these symphonies were published in his lifetime and, of the few of them that received a performance at all, it was a low-key affair by amateur musicians. Yet Schubert was not discouraged; he seems to have regarded each subsequent work as a progressively more ambitious step along a path to the “large-scale symphony” he hoped to write. Hence, while the earliest works - dating from his teens and composed for his school orchestra - show the extent to which he was influenced by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, they also contain the germ of his truly original approach to melody. That he succeeded in creatively breaking out of the shadow of those illustrious forebears is evidenced by the culmination of his efforts, the two-movement “Unfinished” and the 50-minute “Great”, which stand at the very pinnacle of the genre. The enduring legend surrounding the Unfinished, that Schubert was so daunted by the perfection of the opening movements that he feared he could not fashion a worthy conclusion, gains credence from its having been written some six years before his death, and also because it is perfect! Beware, though – there are alternative numbering schemes for these late symphonies, which can be referred to as 7 and 8 (as here), or 8 and 9.
With a 60-year conducting career behind him, Lorin Maazel is one of the most esteemed figures in the old guard and he and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra launch into these works as if their lives depended upon it! They are delivered in a pacy, exciting and hugely engaging set of live performances from 2001 (though you wouldn’t know it but for audience applause at the conclusion of each work),which let me enjoy the early symphonies, particularly, more than I have in the past. The recordings are consistently good; spacious and with tremendous bottom-end power, if perhaps lacking some sparkle compared to the very best. All in all, a perfect opportunity to kill eight birds with one stone! AF
Chopin – Mazurkas [52:22]
Klara Min - Piano
Delos DE3443 (2013)
Of all the genres of piano miniatures that Chopin either invented, or subverted so completely as to make them effectively his own – including ballades, nocturnes, études, waltzes, polonaises and impromptus – the mazurkas seem to be those in which he felt most able to express his own feelings and personality. Though taking their name from a brisk Polish folk dance, the mazurkas are no more danceable than most of the waltzes for, even where their tempo might allow it, their harmonic vocabulary is wholly too intense. He started writing them at the age of 15, before his flight from Poland, and it seems that they later served in helping Chopin maintain a sentimental connection to his homeland, for he composed and published them throughout his short life, amassing a total of almost seventy. Korean pianist Klara Min selects seventeen of them for this disc.
Clocking in at between two and five minutes each, there is little consistency of mood or pace with these mazurkas; gloom, wistfulness and unease seem as much in evidence as the exuberance and jauntiness that the name would lead one to expect. For the listener, though, the variety is welcome and enhanced by Klara Min’s spirited but refined playing and subtle manipulation of tempo and dynamic. The recorded perspective is very close and a little “loud”, increasing the sense of clarity and dynamics at the cost of natural ambience; many will prefer this more “impressive” presentation. Overall, a very recommendable disc. AF
Mozart – La Betulia Liberata [134:35]
Choir & Orchestra dell’Oficina Musicum / Favero
Brilliant Classics 94496 (2013)
I’ve never heard a sacred oratorio by Mozart before, and it’s a fair bet that most readers of this column haven’t either – because he wrote just four of them in all, the first two when he was about twelve years old, with this one following three years later for a commission from Italy. In one respect, this is surprising; Salzburg was a city especially fond of its sacred dramas, with decent musical forces at Mozart’s disposal. However, the youngster’s love of the theatre drew him instead to opera, his first production at the age of fourteen achieving the commercial success that was to mark many of his later ventures.
“La Betulia Liberata” utilises a text by the ubiquitous Metastasio, also set by several other composers of the time, telling the Old Testament story of Judith, the beautiful widow whose courage and faith (not to mention a penchant for stealthy decapitation) saves her city of Bethulia from the besieging Assyrians. As usual, unless your Italian is fluent, expect to be blissfully unaware of the plot developments; the liner notes stop short of reproducing the libretto, but are otherwise commendably thorough. Performance follows the operatic practice of alternating recitative with arias; while many of the latter could easily have come from one of Mozart’s comic operas, such is their beauty and expressiveness, there is nevertheless an air of seriousness that (naturally enough) hangs over proceedings. No biographical material is provided on the performers, but the recording – one of very few on the catalogue, made in 2006 but apparently not previously released – is really good; smooth, transparent and spatially vivid with fine balance between voices and orchestra. Perhaps most obviously appealing to Mozart completists (and the inveterately curious!), for a 2CD release at this price you can’t go wrong. AF
Dvořák - Symphony No. 6; Janáček – Idyll [77:19]
Seattle Symphony / Gerard Schwarz
Dvorak, like his contemporary Tchaikovsky is mainly known for his last three symphonies although he actually wrote nine. One theory for their neglect in the concert hall is the view held by many that it is was too much Brahms and not enough Dvořák. Czech music was viewed by many German and Austrian musicians as being second rate, such was the snobbishness that permeated musical society in the German speaking countries in the last quarter of the 19th century. Wagner used this divide and rule tactic to great effect, and we can readily see today the effect this snobbery had on Bruckner for most of his career.
Hans Richter commissioned the6th Symphony and it was completed in 1880 although not performed by Richter until 1883.
At just over fifty minutes in length this is a weighty piece and Schwarz and his Seattle orchestra give it a fine, energetic performance. The influence of Brahms is readily presented but this takes nothing away from Dvořák’s fine sense of melody and form and the third movement scherzo is a bold fiery affair in the true spirit of the composer.
The Janáček gives us a chance to hear a work by Dvořáks contemporary, which sounds to my ears to be almost English in its pastoral feel and flow. An imaginative coupling for the symphony. Overall a disc well worth exploring and for audiophiles who prefer a clear modern recording of the Dvořák instead of the 1960s vintage sound of Kertesz (who is also very fine with the LSO on Decca at budget price for all nine symphonies) this is a strong choice. JN
Guido – The Four Seasons [66:05]
The Band of Instruments
Divine Art DDA25072 (2012)
Modern research continues to unearth obscure gems from the Baroque, and piece together their stories. In the case of Giovanni Guido, we have fewer details than most – apparently born in Genoa around 1675, he appears suddenly in Paris in 1703 as a musician in the employ of cultured Italophile the Duke of Orléans. Over the following years, Guido established some reputation as a composer and made connections in Parisian high society. When the artist Watteau produced a set of paintings on the theme of the four seasons, Guido seems to have been inspired (or perhaps commissioned) to compose matching concertos; these closely reference the text of four anonymous poems that were published alongside them. That precisely the same approach was taken by Vivaldi in composing his own consummate masterpiece has led to Guido being dismissed as an imitator … yet it now appears that his works date from around 1716, with Vivaldi’s known only to have been circulating prior to 1723. The possibility therefore exists that Vivaldi’s strikingly original inspiration actually belonged to his compatriot.
In the music itself there is little similarity; Guido’s style shows a strong Italian influence, but the irregular structure of his concertos (with 11 movements in “Summer” alone) and the slightly incongruous presence of stylised minuets highlight a characteristically French flavour that is much in evidence throughout. Despite closely following the narrative of his texts, and providing a vivid storm scene, Guido does not attempt the dramatically literal (almost cinematic!) sonic realisation that makes Vivaldi’s work so strikingly unique; given the reduced forces for which he writes – just three violins, cello, bass and harpsichord – that would have been difficult. What we do have is a quirky and wonderfully appealing treat for any lover of the Baroque; gorgeous music, played with flair and passion and quite beautifully recorded. All in all, a thoroughly unexpected delight! AF
Rossini – Complete Chamber Music with Piano [68:55]
Piano Duo Sollini-Barbatano etc.
Concerto CD2076 (2012)
Rossini’s fame nowadays rests, of course, mainly on his comic operas – pre-eminently The Barber of Seville. These all belong to the prolific first half of his life; after around 1830 his output declined, but did not cease altogether as is often claimed, the 14-volume collection of salon music Péchés de vieillesse (“Sins of Old Age”) being compiled during his final decade. I was completely unaware of Rossini’s chamber music but, a fine pianist himself, he produced a number of duets for violin, horn, cello and clarinet with piano accompaniment, plus two shorter pieces for four-handed piano. While this is labelled as a “complete” collection of these works, the disc’s own booklet throws this claim into doubt by characterising them as only “some”; my research has been inconclusive. Still, all bar one of the pieces featured belongs to Rossini’s later period, mostly created as gifts to virtuoso friends, while the opening “Un mot à Paganini” commemorates his close friendship with the legendary (and, by the time of its writing in the late-1860s, long deceased) fiddler. The anticipated violin pyrotechnics, though, come mainly in the set of variations that follows it, composed by a young pupil over a theme by the master.
The music seems very much to reflect Rossini’s sunny, bon-vivant nature; refined, elegant, mostly uptempo, colourful and certainly demanding of the players. The piano is not content with a passive role and often pursues an equal partnership, an impression that its forward balance in the recording only reinforces. Utilising a more reverberant and spacious soundfield than the close-miked, highly focussed norm, this is a very natural and effortlessly dynamic recording. Presentation and artwork is top-notch too. Well worth seeking out for fans of Romantic era chamber music. AF
‘Nodebog’ – Popular Music in 18th Century Norway [52 mins]
Gorset & Friends
2L -088-SABD (2013)
My long-awaited first opportunity to sample a disc from Norway’s revered audiophile label, 2L, is this typically quirky but (to a lover of early music) fascinating journey back in time. Compiled from various hand-written Norwegian music books spanning the entire 18th Century, in which amateur musicians recorded favourite songs, melodies and dances for various instruments, they provide an insight into the everyday musical appetite of the time. They also evidence a surprising range of influences, including melodies from works by the great French, German and Italian composers, English country dances, Scandinavian folk tunes, and even the ubiquitous ‘La Folia’; the most popular tune of Mediaeval times and an inspiration for many composers since. As instrumentation is commonly not specified in these notebooks, and it would in any case be expected that accompaniment be improvised, Hans Gorset employs a variety of authentic baroque instruments, including a characterful Norwegian folk drum, led by himself on flute and recorder.
In addition to a hybrid SACD, a BluRay DVD-Audio disc is included which offers a 24/192 datastream in both stereo and multichannel formats, and plays on any BluRay player. Or so it’s claimed; my own inexpert efforts to extract this hi-rez music to a server, using a BluRay compatible DVD-ROM drive, revealed only 24/96 FLAC files (themselves nothing to be sneezed at!). Prior to that, my listening had been restricted to the CD layer of the SACD disc and even that sounded spine-tinglingly realistic; as usual, hi-rez added some smoothness with extra definition and focus. Given the high prices typically charged for hi-rez downloads, the fact that this package offers a variety of formats with excellent liner notes (essential for this type of material – Gorset has spent many years studying these books) and the security of a physical backup makes it good value. More great tunes than you can shake a stick at, and a lot of fun! AF
Sibelius – Symphonies 1 and 4 [74:10]
Minnesota Orchestra / Osmo Vanska
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) was a colossus who strode the symphonic landscape for well over half of the 20th century, and, yet today, only his 1st, 2nd and 5th Symphonies receive a regular airing in the world’s concert halls.
The two works here are very much under the shadow of the 2nd and 5th symphonies and yet listening to these superb performances it is difficult to see why.
The 1st Symphony premiered in 1899 is one of the most assured first symphonies ever written. Sibelius immediately shows that he is a master of melody, harmonic structure and development. The Minnesota Orchestra play these works with a sweep and commitment under Osmo Vanska which puts this disc in my top ten Sibelius performances and the SACD sound is superb and will give audiophiles many hours of pleasure.
The 4th Symphony has always been controversial, one critic called it “Cubist” at its first performance but listening to this performance I enjoyed the dark rich colouring that Sibelius brings to the work. He was suffering from cancer when he wrote it but beat the disease and lived another forty eight years during which time he cemented his claim to be the century’s finest symphonist.
It is impossible to review these performances without mentioning the current problems that the Minnesota Orchestra has with its management. I can only say that it would be a tragedy if the partnership with Vanska was destroyed as a result of this [hear, hear - Ed].
Buy and enjoy a fine Sibelian in his core repertoire. JN
Stravinsky – The Firebird / The Rite of Spring [CD- 55 mins, DVD- 37 mins]
Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse / Sokhiev
Naive V5192 (2012)
This month (May 2013) marks the centenary of The Rite of Spring’s turbulent Parisian premiere, since when it has become the most iconic classical work of the 20th Century – partly, I believe, because its sheer unconventionality allows it to appeal to those who otherwise feel little inclined towards classical music. Its story rightly starts a few years earlier when, as he completed his score for the ballet The Firebird, Stravinsky had a vision of a young girl dancing herself to death at a pagan rite to the god of Spring. That the young, unknown composer had an opportunity to realise this vision owed much to the success of The Firebird, the acclaim for which propelled him to international stardom. Tapping into a fashionable interest in paganism, The Rite’s unprecedented violence and primal rhythms famously provoked a riot between the work’s supporters and detractors on its opening night.
Scored for a large orchestra, The Rite’s unrestrained dynamics and thunderous percussion have defined it as one of the great audiophile pot boilers, with The Firebird having its advocates, too, especially in a couple of specialist recordings. On the face of it, this new release represents a highly attractive package, especially for those new to these works: an orchestra and conductor attracting rave reviews; a nicely illustrated, luxurious hardback booklet; a concert performance of The Rite on bonus DVD; and the prospect of Naive’s typically superior sound quality, all at a standard single disc price.
I’m happy to report that it broadly delivers on this promise. The Firebird suite (distilled from the full ballet score in 1919) is bold and colourful, with plenty of oriental allure. Compared to other recent, well-regarded versions of The Rite, Sokhiev’s pacing is not quite as compelling as Dudamel’s; his approach more relaxed, as he milks the inner subtleties of Stravinsky’s orchestration. The recording’s realistic concert hall balance also fails to emulate the savage bottom end power of Andrew Litton on BIS, though Naive’s overall sound quality surpasses both of them in its focus, transparency and soundstaging. This is the only one of these discs that offers a pairing with The Firebird, though, which makes it easy to recommend over the others. AF
C.P.Stamitz – Quartets for Clarinet [65:56]
Arthur Campbell - Clarinet
Audite 92.661 (SACD) (2013)
I admit to a particular fascination for those many composers to whom notoriety has been denied due to their being condemned to live eternally in the shadow of Mozart and Haydn – including, from recent instalments of RNR, Vanhal and Graf. Carl Stamitz (1745-1801) is another; taught initially by his father, a founder of the ‘Mannheim School’ (an important source of innovation for orchestral composition in the mid-18th Century), he followed in his father’s footsteps by heading to Paris in 1770 for a career as composer and touring viola virtuoso. Sadly, he would rarely be settled again and ended his life deep in debt – an all-too-common outcome before copyright laws existed to secure artists an ongoing income.
A prolific composer of orchestral works, including more than 50 symphonies and 60 concertos, Stamitz was one of the first to write for clarinet as a solo instrument. In addition to a dozen concertos, he also produced two cycles for clarinet plus string trio – Opus 8 and Opus 19, published in 1773 and 1779, by which latter time he was based mainly in London. Favouring a concerto-style three movement structure with extended opening movement, they blend effervescent melody with the structural formalism characteristic of middle-period Haydn.
Canadian clarinettist Arthur Campbell dispatches the many leaps and flowing runs with ease, and is treated to a really fine recording; as usual, I could play only the CD layer of this hybrid multichannel SACD. I’m pleased also to have finally sampled a disc from Audite, the ‘70s chic of their logo having long intrigued me! This is pure music for pleasure, and heartily recommended as such. AF
Marin Marais – La Gamme [79:00]
Linn CKD434 (2013)
I’ve let a number of very appealing releases from Linn get away from me in recent months – Corelli’s Opus 6 Concertos chief amongst them – but, as a long-term fan of violinist Monica Huggett and her Sonnerie ensembles, their first disc for the Scottish label signalled time to stop the rot!
The viola da gamba remained popular in France long after it began to slip into obsolescence elsewhere in Europe, and the pinnacle of that great tradition is represented by two charismatic figures; Marin Marais and his younger contemporary, Antoine Forqueray. Expected to resist the tide of Italian influence that had long since swept the rest of the continent, and maintain the purity of the classical, dance-based French suite, in his final years Marais instead constructed “La Gamme”; a rambling, 35-minute work of unprecedented scope and variety that has been only rarely recorded.
Indeed, it is difficult at first to get a grasp of the work’s intent and structure – it seems most closely to resemble a set of variations, as it latches onto different themes and explores their harmonic and rhythmic possibilities. I recommend just sitting down with it, and see where it takes you! Also included are the other two works published by Marais in the same volume in 1723 – all for the combination of violin, gamba and harpsichord – the first in more traditional form, while the latter’s insistent three-note ostinato is almost reminiscent of modern ‘trance’ music. From Forqueray comes the first of several suites for viola da gamba with accompaniment, published posthumously by his son in 1747. Also offered at the time in transcription for solo harpsichord, this recording is unusual in choosing to alternate between both versions. It is a work darker in character, as was its creator by all accounts, stately and imposing but played here with vibrancy. Linn’s sound quality is very fine, with great bass power but also excellent balance (this latter not always the case in times past) – though be warned that it’s also the first of their discs I’ve encountered in conventional CD format only, offering neither a SACD layer nor HDCD encoding (the latter a largely unlamented omission, I suspect, except by we few disc-spinning dinosaurs whose players can still decode it!). AF
16 CD Wallet Clamshell
Brilliant Classics 94665 (2013)
It seems silly to encapsulate a 16 disc set into a six paragraph review, but with this fabulous collection, the task will be easy.
Brilliant Classics has purchased the rights to this previously released material (1991–2007 and ranging from Archiv, Hyperion, etc) and released the original recordings with no audiophile enhancements. This is a good thing as the recordings are first rate — lovely, natural acoustics, allowing the quality of singing and playing to the fore.
This set has just about everything you’d ever want in your Purcell library. And, with artists like Trevor Pinnock and the English Concert, Jed Wentz and Ad Rhenum, Michael Chance and many more, the quality of the performances are first rate.
My only slight caveat — the amateur choir of Clare College, Cambridge find it difficult to match the sublime King’s Consort professionals on Hyperion in ‘Here my prayer, O Lord’ and other sacred works, but they are recorded better. But in ‘Dido and Aeneas’ (Ad Rhenum) and ‘King Arthur’ (Pinnock), you’ll be getting definitive performances for what amounts to peanuts per disc.
Whether harpsichord gems, exquisite chamber music (with star baroque fiddlers like Rachel Podger and Andrew Manze) or several CDs worth of sublime countertenor Michael Chance singing his heart out for you, this set is a no brainer.
England’s greatest composer and Europe’s great performers in one neat clamshell package. That’s a ‘buy’ in anyone’s book. AK
The ‘Dude’ is still knocking them dead at Disney in La La Land.
Do a Youtube search for some live video bootlegs to ‘see’ the electricity Gustavo Dudamel is bringing to that city and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
I’ve just reviewed his recent live Mahler 9 on DG, and it is fantastic. This live DG of Debussy’s La Mer and Stravinsky’s complete Firebird is also brilliant if not quite in the same league as a recording or interpretation. It is still among the best of the new crop for these two composers’ party pieces, but bested a smidgen technically by Gergiev/LSO in his fabulous LSOLive La Mer and musically by his LA predecessor, Esa Pekka Salonen (also with LA) on a live DG Firebird.
That said, if you like this particular coupling, go ahead and press click. You’ll get a fine, natural recording with great bass, an orchestra that is on the rise (new hires on viola, trumpet, horn and trombone, all making a big impact), and Dudamel at his most exciting. AK
The Soviet Experience Vol 3 – String Quartets by Shostakovich/Weinberg [128:45]
Cedille CDR90000138 (2013)
Those composers who remained in Russia after the 1917 Revolution received much encouragement from the State, keen to extract propaganda value from showcasing their artistry to the Western bourgeoisie. The sternly censorial and controlling hand of Stalin always loomed large, though, and most lived in constant fear of arrest and banishment to the death camps. The end of Stalin’s regime in 1953 might, then, have been expected to release a wave of creativity; yet for Shostakovich, beset by personal problems, it would be close to a decade before a new marriage would usher in a happier period of his life. The 9th String Quartet, dedicated to his new wife, was premiered in 1964 at the same time as the 10th. The 11th and 12th followed on at 2-year intervals, by which point the composer’s health was already in terminal decline. That he reached a total of 15 Quartets is thought due to a friendly rivalry with the wartime emigrée Weinberg, whose early 6th Quartet (from 1946 – though initially banned by the State, and thought not to have been performed until 2007) fittingly joins those aforementioned works by Shostakovich on this double CD.
The perfection of Beethoven’s late string quartets has long been held to have discouraged later composers from writing in the genre. The 14 quartets of Dvorak, lovely as they are, cling to a recognisably Beethovenian classicism, leaving Shostakovich’s cycle as the pre-eminent modern (re)statement of the tradition. They are angular, sometimes atonal, dark, intense, restless and challenging works; their structures elusive, the ensemble often reduced to sparse textures and solo voices. To be honest, they have found little favour with me previously but, when played as supremely well as they are here, those same qualities start to exert a mesmerising emotional grip on the listener. Equally responsible, perhaps, is a truly superb recording – the perspective wide and a little upfront, as I like it, but very natural and highly transparent – that amply sustains Cedille’s vaunted reputation. The quality of Weinberg’s work also suggests a composer deserving of much greater attention. The Pacifica Quartet’s performances on the series’ prior releases have been hailed as definitive and their playing really is a thing of almost supernatural wonder; add in reference-level sound quality and this one’s already a strong contender for ‘Disc of the Year’! AF
Clementi – Symphonies 1 & 2 [60:10]
Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma/La Vecchia
Naxos 8.573071 (2013)
Muzio Clementi’s epitaph (in Westminster Abbey, no less) hails him as ‘The Father of the Pianoforte’, a title that recognises the adoptive Englishman’s achievements as performer, teacher, composer of over 100 works, music publisher and innovative piano manufacturer. In his heyday, Clementi’s fame across Europe exceeded Mozart’s and was surpassed only by Haydn, with Beethoven a keen admirer of his sonatas – yet he is perhaps chiefly remembered today for a rather dry set of piano exercises. Clementi did compose six symphonies over the period of the genre’s greatest flowering, coinciding with Beethoven and Schubert’s finest works, yet these quickly fell out of circulation and for many years were believed lost, destroyed by Clementi himself … until the incomplete autograph scores were discovered in 1921. The two presented here were reconstructed in the early ‘30s, along with a standalone overture from the same trove that likely predates them. It seems certain that Clementi must have become acquainted with Beethoven’s symphonies during an extended concert tour of the Continent; his own efforts would suggest so, their scale and grandeur comparable even while their formal structure still owes a debt to Haydn’s earlier classical model. Given that Clementi left his native Italy in his early teens, the characteristically Italian melodic influences that I perceive are less explicable, but left me at times with a strange reminiscence of Rossini’s orchestral music!
Most recent Naxos releases have been very well recorded (the RLPO’s series of Shostakovich Symphonies comes immediately to mind) but this is less successful, with a degree of muddiness and constrained dynamics. The recently-formed Rome Symphony Orchestra also lacks the precision of their most illustrious European counterparts. Nevertheless, this is a recommendable disc for lovers of the early-19th Century symphony. AF
‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ – Piano Trios by Smetana/Dvorak/Mercury (Buc) [68:05]
Melba MR301142 (2012)
I can only assume that Melba were as impressed as I was by the Benaud Trio’s debut disc (of works by contemporary Australian composers, reviewed in RNR 2012), as they lost no time in releasing a follow-up of more traditional fare – to a point! Smetana became strongly associated with the struggle of the Bohemian state (a region of modern Czechoslovakia) to achieve independence from the Austro-Hungarian empire in the mid-1800s, and the outpouring of national self-confidence that resulted ultimately spawned a clutch of noteworthy composers. Much of Smetana’s music from this period is overtly nationalistic, but the Piano Trio commemorates an earlier tragedy in his life, the death of his young daughter. Remarkably, though, it is not morbid or mournful in character, balancing the moments of obvious sorrow and tenderness with a brighter mood as Smetana is, perhaps, reconciled to his loss.
Dvorak played viola in the Prague orchestra under Smetana, who became a lifelong supporter. He wrote much fine chamber music, but his “Dumky” Trio stands apart through its lack of formal structure. It is comprised of an integrated set of self-contained, stylised laments derived from a folk song tradition, each of which contrasts slow, sombre sections with spirited, up-tempo episodes. Its relative homogeneity of form is a little disorientating, but the music is accessible, lovely and simultaneously both modern and traditional.
Much of the attention on this disc will inevitably fall on the closing 5-minute piece; a previously unrecorded adaptation by Nicholas Buc of Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. While I personally find such ‘crossover’ exercises generally ill-advised, this one actually works (for the most part). I challenge anyone not to be moved by the sheer sonorous beauty of the ballad section, while the following ‘mock opera’ episode also works well. Predictably enough, the heavy, guitar-driven segment is less successful, and you can’t help but miss the giant gong at the end … but overall I have no doubt that Freddie would have loved it! The curious can seek it out on YouTube, along with an equally inspired take on “Stairway to Heaven”. Again, a finely played and extremely well-recorded disc – why doesn’t every Steinway sound this exquisite?! – that will hopefully find a wider audience. AF
Mozart – Piano Concertos 13/14 [77:19]
Chamber Players of Canada / Janina Fialkowska - Piano
ATMA ACD2 2532 (2013)
Mozart is often portrayed as the archetypal impoverished genius, yet for most of his life he generated a healthy income using the sound commercial acumen that his father had fostered in him. Having married and moved to Vienna in the early 1780s, he wrote three piano concertos (numbers 11 to 13) that were intended to cement his burgeoning reputation in the city, and self-published them on a subscription basis. To maximise their appeal to the growing ranks of amateur pianists and fashionable string ensembles, the orchestral backing was specifically created to be playable by string quartet, one to a part. The same approach was taken with the 14th Concerto the following year, though it was the last to be so structured as Mozart’s interest in financially risky publishing ventures waned. Augmented by double bass to fill out the bottom octave, it is the string quartet versions that receive a rare performance here – and the effect upon these familiar pieces is, to my ears, utterly charming! The lightness, grace, transparency and sparkle, together with the delicious equality of the balance between piano and ensemble, is such that it will be a long time before I’m tempted to pull out my recordings of the orchestral versions again.
Offered as a particularly appealing filler is another work whose well-known orchestral version belies the fact that it was written only for string quartet plus double bass – the incomparable serenade ‘Eine kleine Nachtmusik”. If you have never heard it performed as originally intended, the effect is a complete revelation. The string quintet achieves a nimbleness and grace that cuts to the heart of these over-familiar tunes; taken without repeats, this is also likely the shortest version you’ll find at just 17 minutes. Tempos are brisk but not excessively quick, unlike some of the other quintet versions I’ve heard and, though I retain a special fondness for the Salomon Quartet’s mid-‘80s recording, this one is every bit as recommendable and even better sounding.
Beautifully played and finely recorded – as usual from ATMA – this is, in every respect, an incredibly appealing disc. There’s an earlier sister release of the 11th and 12th Concertos that is now at the top of my wishlist too. AF
Grieg – Music for String Orchestra [63:30]
Australian Chamber Orchestra / Tognetti
BIS SACD 1877 (2012)
For a great composer, Grieg’s output is remarkably sparse in several of the traditional genres; he produced only a single concerto (albeit a very fine one, for piano), no symphonies, one completed string quartet and, overall, vanishingly little music for orchestra. The only well-known example is the Holberg Suite – yet even that was originally written for piano and only rescored for orchestra a year later, in 1885. It was commissioned by the people of Bergen in Norway, Grieg’s birthplace, to celebrate another famous son, Baroque-era dramatist Ludvig Holberg. Its structure is modelled on the keyboard suites of Bach and Handel and, while its melodies offer a fond parody of the baroque, its lush and romantic demeanour is pure Grieg. Also included here are Grieg’s transcriptions of his own songs, Two Elegaic Melodies, and Richard Tognetti’s dynamic arrangement for string orchestra of the String Quartet Op.27. He is not the first to recognise the work’s suitability for this adaptation, which certainly allows the darkness and portent at its heart to be given full expression. While Grieg made clear that this was a very personal work, it is also highly uncharacteristic; my personal impression is that the piece seems to battle a sense of inner anguish which leaves it unable to gather any real momentum or cohesion, though its drama is undeniable.
Two things particularly drew me to this disc. One was the chance to experience again the ACO’s breathtaking playing; in 2011’s RNR I gushed ecstatically about their recordings of the Mozart Violin Concertos, which remain in the small handful of my absolute favourite discs. The other was the chance to pit their version of the Holberg against my long-term reference, by the revered Russian National Orchestra. The animation and sheer joyousness that infects their every note easily carried the day for the ACO, making the Russians’ playing sound very reserved and, indeed, unsuited to what is ultimately dance-based music. The performance of the String Quartet is also stunning, easily surpassing the Oslo Camerata’s recent, highly-regarded version in its dynamics and the precision of ensemble playing. The miniatures reflect a more familiar side of Grieg; cheerfully melodic and full of the influence of Scandinavian folk music. Add in another really fine recording from BIS, and there is likely no more recommendable version of these works. AF
Graf – Flute Concertos [65:57]
Gaby Pas-Van Riet – Flute / Sudwestdeutsches Kammerorchester Pforzheim / Moesus
CPO 777 724-2 (2012)
The German composer, Friedrich Hartmann Graf, was a close contemporary of Haydn who travelled widely and achieved great popularity and high regard across Northern Europe through the 1770s and 1780s. A flute virtuoso, Graf composed around 50 concertos for his instrument and these enjoyed wide dissemination amongst the musical nobility, securing his reputation from Italy to Scandinavia and in London, where he presided over the Hanover Square subscription concerts several years before Haydn was accorded that honour.
The four concertos on this disc are believed to date from the 1770s; all for a single flute, plus a small orchestra of strings and two horns, supplemented in one instance by two oboes … making this performance by the awkwardly-named but highly accomplished, 14-member German chamber orchestra entirely appropriate. Each piece is characteristic of early classical form, in three movements (fast-slow-fast) with plenty of showpiece passages for the soloist and many lovely moments to remind us why Graf was so feted in his lifetime.
Mozart, en route to Mannheim, met Graf in Augsburg in the autumn of 1777, where he participated (on violin) in one of Graf’s concertos for two flutes. Typically acerbic towards his rivals, in correspondence with his father the young prodigy was later roundly disparaging of both Graf and his music – yet, as coincidence would have it, within months Mozart had received a commission and created his own two magnificent flute concertos, a supreme standard of excellence against which Graf’s works must inevitably fall short. Nonetheless, these are delightful pieces, wholly characteristic of their time, and the very transparent, beautifully balanced recording from CPO is a treat for all lovers of the flute. AF
Recommended New Releases 02/03/13
From the House of Master Böhm [79:48]
John O’Donnell - Harpsichord
Melba MR301143 (2012)
Georg Böhm (1661-1733) belongs to that generation of German composers immediately preceding JS Bach, much of whose work is known to us only through manuscript copies taken and collected by the extended Bach family. Recent scholarship has granted Böhm a special degree of pre-eminence amongst them, though – as it now seems likely that the 15-year old Johann Sebastian was apprenticed to him, and lived in his house at Lüneburg. Bach enthusiasts will, then, be keen to look for signs of his teacher’s influence in these works … and they will certainly find them!
Böhm’s preserved output is not extensive; his organ works are the most recorded, while there are also some choral pieces and a number of suites for harpsichord, four of which feature on this generously-filled disc. Two of his chorale partitas also appear, a format pioneered by Böhm and comprising a number of variations on a chorale (hymn) theme, which was later enthusiastically taken up by Bach himself – these were probably intended for harpsichord, but are also playable on organ. Much of the harpsichord music of this era that’s familiar to modern listeners came from France, and there are occasional echoes of the French style, yet these works are distinctively different; more direct, less florid, already demonstrating the German obsession with fugue and also the gift of a ravishingly gorgeous melody.
John O’Donnell’s contribution to the Early Music movement, through his conducting, performing and academic research is truly extraordinary – including as it does the record of being the first person to perform JS Bach’s complete keyboard works. As his enlightening liner notes demonstrate, he brings to this music a high degree of insight and affection. Where much solo harpsichord music can easily become monotonous, O’Donnell imbues this material with unusual energy, variety, warmth and sonorous beauty. Also making a claim for star billing is the harpsichord itself, a modern reproduction of a Flemish instrument from the mid 1700s with an utterly gorgeous sound, captured with exceptional focus and a rare sense of physical presence in Melba’s typically superior recording. Also available as a download, including 24/96 hi-rez, this is a disc to appeal to more than just the harpsichord hardcore. af
Piano Music of Edvard Grieg, Volume 3 [70:20]
Sandra Mogensen, piano
Chestnut Hall Music (2012)
After I reviewed outstanding Canadian pianist Sandra Mogensen’s two volumes of piano music of Grieg, the delivery of a third volume came as a very pleasant surprise.
The first two CDs received enthusiastic reviews. In Volume 3, Mogensen conjures more Nordic magic. Grieg’s piano miniatures are sparkling gems, and no matter the style, she judges her tone and the tempos perfectly.
I do love Emil Gilel’s way with Grieg’s music and I’m not sure anyone will match his glorious interpretations. Yet, Mogensen knows her way around these deceptively light scores and they are recorded in the finest sound. Nicely ambient with the underlying power of the instrument, Mogensen’s interpretations and her tone captured beautifully. Listening to the CD at length, Schumann’s description of Chopin’s music, ‘cannons behind flowers’ may be used to describe these mini masterpieces, too. ak
Schubert: Erlkonig - Matthias Goerne Schubert Edition Vol.7 [65:00]
Matthias Goerne, baritone; Andreas Haefliger, piano
harmonia mundi (2013)
Matthias Goerne is one of the first calls for top class lieder programs requiring a baritone of international stature. Blessed with a gorgeous, expressive voice, Goerne brings powerful interpretations of great art songs to stages all over the world. Goerne also is a presence on the world’s greatest operatic stages.
This new harmonia mundi CD is Volume 7 of his Schubert Series. I’m not sure about you, but for me poor old Schubert always gets placed at the back of the classical superstar pack, behind Mozart, Beethoven Brahms, et al. He shouldn’t be. Happily, harmonia mundi’s review CDs of late include many of Schubert’s great works, including his 600 songs.
Goerne delivers them with his usual panache, beauty of voice and appreciation of the text. Here, he includes many of Schubert’s greatest songs: Der Wanderer, D493, Nachtviolen D752, Im Walde D834, An den Mond, D259, Erlkönig, D328, Widerschein, D949, and many others.
Equal to the task is accompanist Andreas Haefliger. Both powerful and delicate when required, he supports his singer with consummate musicianship. And, equal to the artists is a recording to match. Another triumph in Goerne’s must not miss series. ak
J.S. Bach — The English Suites BWV806-811 [150:25]
Richard Egarr, harpsichord
harmonia mundi (2013)
English harpsichordist Richard Egarr has recorded 30 CDs. This is the first time his name and product has crossed my desk. Shame on me. Harpsichord is not my favourite instrument to listen to (interestingly, I love performing with harpsichord accompaniment), but Egarr makes the two CD set of Bach’s English Suites sound natural and effortless.
A student of the great Leonhardt, Egarr is blessed with excellent technique and a probing, musical mind. 150 minutes of harpsichord music may be a lot in a single sitting, but Egarr’s superb performances make Bach and one of his favourite instruments sing. ak