Audiophilia Recommended New Releases - Update 01/05/13
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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