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The Lebrecht Weekly

 


CDs of the Week

By Norman Lebrecht

Read

March 3, 2014

Mieczyslaw Weinberg/Kremerata Baltica
(ECM)
****

Living in the shadow of his close friend and neighbour Dmitri Shostakovich, the Polish refugee was little known in his lifetime (1919-1996) outside Soviet Russia. But a revival has been stirring these past few years with European and US productions of his Auschwitz survivors’ opera The Passenger and sporadic recordings of variable quality of his instrumental works, among them 27 symphonies. Some consider him the third great Soviet composer, after Prokofiev and Shostakovich.

Gidon Kremer has no doubts of his genius. He opens this set with a solo violin sonata, austere and melancholic. Skip that, and you enter a frisky 1950 string trio, followed by a 1949 violin-piano sonatina in which the pianist is the irresistible Tchaikovsky winner, Daniil Trifonov. Written under Stalin’s second Terror Wave in which members of Weinberg’s family were murdered, the works wear a fixed smile and a ferocious concentration. The listener dare not relax.

A 1948 concertino for violin and string orchestra is altogether more ingratiating, with an arresting opening melody and busy interplay between soloist and ensemble. It’s a retro near-masterpiece of 1930s rhythms and neo-classical riffs. The tenth symphony, which wraps up the album, is a post-tonal experiment of the late 1960s, daring for its time and place but unchallenging to modern, western ears. The playing quality is top drawer. Weinberg always leaves me wanting to hear more.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com









February 4, 2014

The Westminster Legacy
(DG)
*****

In the golden age of orchestral recording – the 1950s cusp between mono and stereo – American labels piled into London and Vienna after an aggressive union priced their own musicians out of work. At Abbey Road, players worked thirty days on the trot, three sessions a day, to feed a burgeoning market for classical music. In Vienna, the Philharmonic (exclusively contracted to Decca) performed under six different names for other labels.

Westminster was one of the busiest of these producers and its arhives have been virtually unavailable for the past quarter-century, since the digital dawn. This overdue compilation of 40 CDs is filled with uncollected glories, some half-remembered, others unknown. A Vienna Mozart Requiem conducted by the cerebral Hermann Scherchen, with Sena Jurinac as soloist; Clara Haskil playing the Mozart D minor concerto and the very young Daniel Barenboim the E-flat major: treasures beyond the stuff of dreams.

Pierre Monteux leading Beethoven’s ninth in London with Elisabeth Soderstrom and Jon Vickers; Adrian Boult conducting The Planets in Vienna; Hans Knappertsbusch interpreting Bruckner; debut discs by the Amadeus Quartet and Julian Bream; the two best Czech quartets coming together in Mendelssohn’s Octet. This is fantasy casting of an almost unimaginable pedigree and few today are aware that these recordings even exist.

There are, inevitably, a few period duds in the box, but even these mishits – Scherchen Conducts Music for Multiple Orchestras – proclaim an idealism that we’d write off as quixotic if we didn’t, finally, blessedly, have proof of their existence. Where on earth to begin?

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com









January 6, 2014

André Tchaikovsky: Piano concerto
(Toccata)
****

We now have piano concertos by three composers called Tchaikovsky. The first is written in B flat minor, a dark key that others mostly shunned. The second is by Boris Tchaikovsky, a student and kindred spirit of Dmitri Shostakovich. The third is like nothing you’ve ever heard before.

In the first place, its composer’s name is not really Tchaikovsky. That was a name picked by his grandmother to pluck him from the Warsaw Ghetto and keep him alive, hidden in a closet, until the Nazis were defeated. The boy, a pianist and composer, was an unsettled soul who lived mostly in England until his death of cancer, aged 46, in 1982. For many years he was known as the man who left his skull to the Royal Shakespeare Company for use in the gravediggers’ scene in Hamlet.

Last summer, however, his opera The Merchant of Venice received a triumphant premiere at the Bregenz Festival and the third Tchaikovsky (too late to change the name) is now firmly back in play. His piano concerto, written for Radu Lupu in the late 1960s, reflects the swirling currents of Sixties London. Atonal and dramatic, it is austere only in its frugality – not a note out of place. A sultry mischief, alternately angry and amused, pervades the work. The music engages the listener with a powerful personality and an infectious musicality. We need to hear this concerto at the BBC Proms to sample its exciting potential. The performers here are Maciej Grzybowski and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, conductor Paul Daniel.

André Tchaikovsky’s extraordinarily articulate diaries, also published this month by Toccata, recount a dauntless human odyssey.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com









December 16, 2013

Antheil the futurist
(Wergo)
***

The original American in Paris, George Antheil titled his best-selling memoirs Bad Boy of Music and tried hard to live up to his billing. Raised a Lutheran in Trenton, New Jersey, he went wild among artists and ladies, filling his apartment with new acquisitions – a Braque, a Picasso, a Leger, two Kubins, the paint still wet. Shuttling between 1920s Paris and Berlin he finally headed to Hollywood, last refuge of the wannabe celebrity.

In music as in books, his best writing is often the title – Airplane Sonata, Swell Music, Death of Machines. The promise soon wears thin. Aiming to break sound barriers, he lands somewhere between honky-tonk and his all-time idol, Igor Stravinsky.

The solo piano music is entertaining enough in noisy spells. Guy Livingston, intermittently joined by two other pianists, hurls himself at the keyboard and spares no effort to make a case for an Antheil revival. No fault of his that the music is no more than a dinner plate shattered into period pieces.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com









December 9, 2013

James MacMillan: Alpha & Omega
(Linn)
****

Nobody does church like James MacMillan. Every year, as Christmas nears and a Mass or Magnificat of his lands on the deck, the composer contrives to surprise, bending the harmonic line out of the blue like David Beckham in his prime, while staying true throughout to a traditional sacred format.

MacMillan himself directs his Missa Dunelmi, with Alan Tavener leading Capella Nova for the rest of the concert. It is recorded in the challenging acoustic of the Church of the Holy Rude, Stirling. The sound though, as you’d expect on a label run by a high-end hi-fi manufacturer, is exemplary – wondrously atmospheric and worth the album price on its own if you’ve got new speakers to show off to envious friends.

Madeleine Mitchell pops up with a stunning violin solo, which she plays more like country fiddler than concert soloist, filling in the harmonic hills and valleys while the vocals curl upwards into the roof beams. MacMillan is a champion virtuoso of church space.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com









December 2, 2013

Splinters
(Odradek)
****

The opening of György Kurtág’s Splinters suite sounds like the tuner has arrived and is giving your piano a workover. Then the second phrase chimes in and you realise that you have never listened properly to a piano before.

In one minute and seven seconds, a Hungarian composer takes off both your ears, gives them a rinse and polish and leaves them half a tone sharper than before. This is a specialist service offered only by Hungarian composers and their interpreters. Few perform it better than Mariann Marczi, a teacher at Budapest’s Franz Liszt Academy.

She follows austere Kurtág with an extended aphorism of György Ligeti’s and a meditation by Zoltan Kodaly, best known for exotic orchestral overtures but here measuring out each note like Bluebeard enumerating wives. An autumnal reflection by Laszlo Lajtha yearns for a Paris boulevard, while three Béla Bartók burlesques threaten to tip the piano totally off its casters. Two living composers, Zoltan Jeney and Gyula Csapó, round off an original album without a single superfluous note. Solo piano in Hungarian is a world unto itself, a world apart.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.co.uk









November 25, 2013

Beethoven-Bruckner-Hartmann-Holliger
(ECM)
***

Karl Amadeus Hartmann, who lived all his life in Munich and died 50 years ago next month (Dec), went into inner exile during the Nazi regime. He refused to allow his music to be performed after January 1933 and joined an underground movement that helped people flee the country. After the War, he founded Musica Viva, a concert series that introduced Bavarians to all the new music they had missed under Hitler. His own music is a vital link in German cultural history and is played all too little abroad, or on record.

His second string quartet, begun in May 1945, ripples with overt references to Alban Berg and his violin concerto. Like Berg, Hartmann weaves tonal into atonal and hints at sources in Bach. Like Berg, he conceals a lover in the work, the syllables of his wife’s name, Elisabeth. Like Berg he is, for all the cross-references, entirely himself. The music, intimate and intense, grips the ear with great force.

It is played here by the Zehetmair Quartet in a context that is at once imaginative and ambitious. The album opens with Beethoven’s final quartet, the opus 135, taken at high speed and risk, unflickering in its glare at approaching death. Next comes the Bruckner quartet (admit it: you never knew he wrote one), written in the composer’s early 40s and, in its quietude, an antodote to his huge symphonies. Then the quartet play Hartmann and you grasp the coherence of the compilation. The final piece, commissioned by the Zehetmairs from the Swiss composer Heinz Holliger, is full of allusions to German literature, though lacking lacks a strong conclusion. That said, this is a bold and intelligent album, played with passion, a signature project.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com









November 17, 2013

Natalie Dessay sings Michel Legrand
(Erato)
****

When an opera singer turns to movies there is reason to suspect that the primary motives are not necessarily artistic. Less suspicion, perhaps, in the case of Natalie Dessay, who considers herself a singing actress rather than a diva and whose personal interests range above and beyond a stretch-limo ego and a high tessitura.

What Ms Dessay sings here is, she says, the soundtrack of her life. Michel Legrand may be known the world over for ‘Windmills of My Mind’ from The Thomas Crown Affair, but in France he’s part of the furniture, dominating French cinema for the past half century. Ms Dessay heard him first when she was six years old. The chance to meet him was irresistible, the record that followed inevitable.

Some of the tracks here are of such local particularity that you’d struggle to find them on major databases, others possess a domestic simplicity. A cake recipe sung with Patricia Petibon falls into both categories. But it’s followed by an enchanting Lilac Waltz and once Natalie is let loose on the Hollywood showstoppers – the Streisand prayer from Yentl, Sinatra’s What are you doing the rest of your life, the Windmills cronned with Legrand in French – she’s altogether irresistible. And then there’s the duet from Les Parapluies de Cherbourg with her husband, Laurent Naouri. Just listen. I can’t stop.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com









November 11, 2013

Prokofiev 3, Bartok 2
(Sony Classical)
**

This album comes strongly recommended. On the rear cover, Sir Simon Rattle declares: ‘I don’t know when I’ve ever heard a pianist who is able to be more uncannily accurate in the Bartók concerto and then still have the ability to make it dance.’

Lang Lang adds: ‘I really think these concertos have a musical relevance that’s absolutely right for our times.’ The booklet note is written by the Editor-in-Chief of Gramophone magazine and the sleeve shows the two artists in expressions of ecstasy.

The music is another matter. The Prokofiev third concerto is opened by a delicious clarinet solo that is picked up by the rest of the orchestra. Lang Lang bursts into the conversation like a man who’s late for a flight, all haste and not much feel for the atmosphere. There are some wild moments in the andantino, but the finale reverts to non-communication, the orchestra going one way, the pianist the other. The result is not so much disturbing as insipid: a breezy misreading of one of the most scalp-tingling concertos on record. Try Argerich, Ashkenazy, Kissin, or the composer himself, and you’ll hear what’s missing.

In the Bartók second concerto, Lang Lang admits admiration for a 1960 Berlin recording by Geza Anda and Ferenc Fricsay. This interpretation, however, bears no resemblance to that sovereign landmark. Here, the music is driven by agitation, its wistful accents mashed into robotic motion. The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra sound magnificent, earning the production its second critical star.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com









October 14, 2013

Antonio Meneses, Maria Joao Pires: The Wigmore Hall Recital
(Universal)
****

London’s Wigmore Hall runs an excellent little label that showcases its best recitals and sells heavily in the lobby and online. Every now and then, however, an event leaps off its stage and can no longer be contained in house.

Listen to this rare pairing of two Portuguese-speaking artists and you’ll wonder where you were that January night last year, how on earth you missed the date and what took DG so long to issue this quite exceptional recording.

Pires and Menses takes Schubert’s hackneyed Arpeggione Sonata at a hypnotic pace – slow, to be sure, but so commanding as to pin you to the seat. I haven’t heard a more riveting performance in years. Brahms’s first sonata is friskier, but no less arresting. You feel like you’re intruding on the private meditation of two artists who play together every day of their lives. A set of Brahms intermezzi and snippets of Bach and Mendelssohn complete the set. On paper, just another classical release. In your ears, an inimitable experience. Why wasn’t I there?

The producer is EMI veteran John Fraser, with immaculate sound by Daniel Kemper and Andrew Mellor. The lone drawback is a booklet with dreary pics and words. Wigmore Hall has great house style. What happened to DG’s?

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com









October 7, 2013

Boris Giltburg: Romantic sonatas
(Orchid)
****

Winning one of the four top piano competitions is supposed to change your life with a dazzle of big dates and a major label contract. Boris Giltburg has resisted the instant temptations, sticking with a niche label for his first two releases after taking the Queen Elisabeth contest by storm.

His three sonatas are nicely contrasted – Rachmaninov’s morose second in B-flat minor, Grieg’s wintry wander through Norwegian woods and Liszt’s big half-hour bruiser in B minor, all three elucidated in thoughtful sleeve notes by the artist himself.

No corporate label would have countenanced so unyielding a display of serious intent, and Giltburg might have done this release a favour by appending a soft encore for less rigorous listeners. On the other hand, if he wants the world to respect his sincerity, he could hardly have picked a stronger set. The playing is an unalloyed delight, rich in character, devoid of distracting tricks and with no surplus artillery noise in the Liszt. Giltburg is a pianist you will want to hear live. Clap long enough and he might even smile up an encore.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.co.uk









September 30, 2013

Diana Damrau: Forever
(Erato)
****

This is the critical fortnight in September when labels launch vocal albums for the Christmas market and critics cower beneath the bed hoping they will go away. All the big names are out there, from Domingo to Donato, and most are doing just what you’d expect. Except Diana Damrau, who lands on my deck like an untimely spring breeze.

The Bavarian soprano usually covers mainstream opera from Mozart to Strauss with a dash of big Italian roles. Here, she dips into operetta, but with a personal twist. Aside from a handful of Johann Strauss, Lehar and Kalman, she sings mid-20th century Broadway rep, some in English, some in German. To my ears, My Fair Lady is much improved auf Deutsch (and with a burglar-scaring squeak), though Sweeney Todd stumbles a bit and Ms D does Andrew Lloyd Webber a favour by choosing Queen’s English for an aria from Phantom of the Aria, perhaps the most musical rendition it has ever received. David Charles Abell conducts the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in top-notch sound and the only regret is the superfluous, expensive inclusion of a brittle-voiced Rolando Villazon in the Merry Widow duet.

The album’s best is saved for first, and last – a pair of Vocalises by film writers Wojciech Kilar and Frédéric Chaslin, wordless songs where the voice soars free and the singer stamps her own emotions on the song. Irresistible.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com









September 23, 2013

Richard Wagner: piano sonatas
(CPO)
***

What did Wagner do before he became Wagner? In 1832 he wrote a pair of piano sonatas, a timely idea for a musician of 19, trying to find his voice. Beethoven was five years dead and no-one had yet dared to address his summit 32 sonatas. Perfect opportunity for a brash Leipzig iconoclast.

Except he lacked the means. Wagner for piano is like Turner for the blind: he simply has no way to make himself comprehensible even when, as in the finale of the B-flat sonata, he takes on a theme of Beethoven’s opus 106. The melodies, moderately interesting, lead nowhere in particular and the occasional burst of bombast serves only as a hinted anticipation of operas to come. The first sonata is subsequently denigrated in Wagner’s memoirs and the second was left unprinted.

Tobias Koch plays the pair on an 1852 hammerflügel whose plinkety sound confirms that these works are neither one thing nor the other, ancient or modern. They are, however, well worth hearing for the sheer megalomaniac presumption that a smooth-faced student with no prior experience could match Beethoven at his peak. This fascinating album also contains a set of sung variations by Wagner on the theme of Faust – further proof of an outsized ambition.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com









September 16, 2013

Hanns Eisler: Serious Songs
(Harmonia Mundi)
*****

Eisler was, in Gustav Mahler’s poignant phrase, three times homeless. Expelled from Vienna in 1918 for his sister’s communist activities, he left Berlin on Hitler’s ascent to settle in Hollywood, only to be evicted after the War when his turncoat sister denounced him as a communist to the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities.

What followed was the fourth and most painful of Eisler’s exiles, a sojourn until death in the total-surveillance state of East Germany. Depressed and disillusioned, Eisler wrote a set of Serious Songs for baritone and instrumental ensemble, finishing it shortly before he died in August 1962. His texts veer from the dark introspection of film-director Berthold Viertel’s ‘Sadness’ to the barely-disguised dismay of an ode to the ‘20th Party Congress’. His musical language is closer to Mahler than to Schoenberg, whose pupil he had been. Every song aches for an unattainable home.

The German baritone Matthias Goerne articulates Eisler’s anguish with crisp diction couched in a velveteen musicality. More even than Dietrich Fscher-Dieskau, who took up these songs half a century ago, Goerne goes to the heart of pain without a trace of pity and with sudden flashes of wit. He turns wilder and more dramatic in a set of Bertolt Brecht songs for voice and piano, accompanied by Thomas Larcher, who also performs Eisler’s earliest work, a 1923 piano sonata dedicated to Schoenberg. The sound is exemplary and the cover image arresting; this is a near-perfect record.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com









August 15, 2013

Kuniko: Cantus
(Linn)
****

Sir Thomas Beecham used to call his percussion ‘kitchen instruments’ and treat the players at the back of the orchestra like household staff. Percussion has come a long way since then, both in the diversity of instruments and in force of ambition.

Kuniko Kato, a US-based Japanese virtuoso, applies her marimbas, crotales, bells and vibraphones to the works of living composers, several of whom are delight in the extra colours and dimensions she adds to their work. Arvo Pärt and Steve Reich, meticulous to a fault, assisted in the making of this album.

Reich’s landmark 1985 work New York Counterpoint is shaded by Kuniko gently away from its original insistent heaviness into a sound picture that recalls Hokusa’s Wave, the original cover of Debussy’s La Mer, a seascape full of promise and menace. Four pieces by Pärt are imbued with a shimmer so haunting that you forget they were originally written for strings – none more so than the 1977 Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten which, no longer mourning, finds a certain celebration in a composer’s life. The sound, recorded at 24-bit/192hz by Yuji Sagae and Junichiro Hayashi, is outstanding. Why can’t all records sound this good?

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com





Three women singers



Ailyn Perez
(Opus Arte)
****

Total enchantment from the young US soprano in two sets by Reynaldo Hahn and a triple meditation by Fauré; the Spanish songs are pretty hot, too. Ian Burnside accompanies.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com







Alice Coote
(Wigmore Hall Live)
***

Brigitte Fassbender set the benchmark for mezzo-sopranos singing Schubert’s Winterreise cycle. Alice Coote – with Julius Drake at the piano – delivers a rich and dark journey, lacking just the top notch of tension.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com







Anna Prohaska
(Deutsche Grammophon)
***

The next big voice in Baroque mixes Handel with Purcell, shedding many English consonants along the way. The voice is lovely. Jonathan Cohen directs.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com









August 8, 2013

Vladimir Horowitz: The 1982 Royal Festival Hall recital
(BBC Music magazine)
****

One spring Saturday in May 1982, remembered by witnesses as if yesterday, the most famous living pianist gave his first recital in Europe for 31 years. Vladimir Horowitz had been acclaimed as a phenomenon when he escaped Communist Russia, aged 22, in 1925. A pianist with a pinpoint tone and a technique before which Rachmaninov himself paled, he conquered the world’s concert halls, married Toscanini’s daughter and was lavishly wooed by record labels.

No-one, however, owned Vladimir Horowitz. His sensibility was so particular that he never rose before lunchtime, ate steamed fish, and played recitals only at four in the afternoon. His long absence from Europe was due to periods of mental instability and hospitalisation. Few who attended the RFH in May 1982 had ever heard him live before.

The release of that recital, as the cover-mount of BBC Music magazine’s September issue, is momentous. The opening notes of a Scarlatti sonata demonstrate that this was a pianist who interpreted music from within a bubble of impermeable subjectivity, oblivious to precedent and expectation. Horowitz perceived no barrier between the early classicism of Scarlatti and Scriabin’s crackpot modernism: both were music to his soul. He played Schumann’s Scenes from Childhood with an infant-like innocence and Rachmaninov’s second sonata with a profound, empathetic loneliness.

The recorded sound, a shade indistinct, is no harsher than his New York studio sessions, and the remoteness of the applause underlines a perceptual distance between Horowitz and the rest of us. Only in his final DG recordings, taped in his own home, does Horowitz permit intimacy. No piano lover can afford to leave this disc unplayed.

>Buy this CD at Classical-music.com






`



August 1, 2013

Britten: Peter Grimes
(Signum)
****

Tosca has been staged on the ramparts of Rome and Turandot on the Great Wall of China, but putting Peter Grimes on Aldeburgh beach in June risked the inclemency of an early English summer, which proved frigid. Rehearsals and first performances of this open-air production were survived with heavy blankets and hip-flasks. Even after the gales ceased, greatcoats remained essential. There was never a risk of stage nudity in this production.

Adult content, on the other hand, is innate. Raising sympathy for a fisherman who caused the death of boys and may have abused them is as tough a call today as it was at the Sadlers Wells premiere in June 1945. Britten’s self-image as an outsider in a hostile world – gay, pacifist, an artist – is nowhere more forcibly experienced. How to play the loner Grimes is one of the supreme challenges in modern opera.

Alan Oke nails it from his first response to the examining coroner. Neither confrontational nor contrite, he stands tall in the dock, his voice pure and sure. A fishing man who lives by his catch, he needs to find another boy to take to sea. Scene by scene, we are drawn to his plight. Giselle Allen is a touching schoolma’am, David Kempster a convincing Captain Bulstrode, the chorus a constant threat.

At the open-air beach performances, the Britten-Pears Orchestra was beamed in from indoors. The mix here is imperceptible and the sound unobtrusive; engineer Mike Hatch deserves a credit twice the size and conductor Stueart Bedford pulls off an extraordinary feat of coherence and endurance. But it’s Oke who makes the case for Peter Grimes and steals the show. There used to be two great Grimes on record: Peter Pears and Jon Vickers. Now there are three.

>Buy this CD at Amazon






`



July 25, 2013

Arthur Schnabel: piano works
(CPO)
***

Schnabel was probably the most influential pianist of the 20th century, if by no means the most popular. The great crowd pleasers were Russians and Poles. Schnabel (1882-1951) was a Vienna-trained intellectual who edited Beethoven and Schubert sonata editions and performed with a blazing disregard for occasional wrong notes.

Schnabel was the first to record the 32 Beethoven sonatas and to perform the late Mozart concertos. A man of limitless curiosity, he softened his demeanour with twinkling wit. Many of his quips and his recordings are still doing the rounds today.

Telling everyone he was first and foremost a composer, he was very little performed. His late works, of which he was proudest, are severely atonal. The music here dates from around the First World War, much of it long-lost.

A piano quintet of 1915-16 oozes Viennese charm with a sour undertone, not unlike Ravel’s La Valse. At almost an hour it tests the patience, but the personality behind it is recognisably Schnabel – a man who always liked to have the last word. Other works include a piano sonata and two sets of songs. The earlier the music, the more playful it gets. Irmela Roelcke is the pianist behind the project and her persistence really pays off. Next time you listen to a historic Schnabel recording, try some of this for dessert.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical






`



July 19, 2013

Down by the Sea: A Collection of British Folk Songs
(Naxos)
*****

At the risk of prejudicing any latecomers and with 2013 barely half gone, I declare this release to be my choral album of the year. I’d be stupefied if anything stronger comes long.

The title is misleading, enticing you to expect horny-handed fishermen’s heave-hos of the kind enshrined by Kathleen Ferrier in Blow the Winds Southerly some 65 years ago. Put the thing on play, however, and you’ll find that most of the music is by living composers, with a bare half-dozen by Vaughan Williams, Holst, Grainger and Moeran.

The oldies are the least interesting of the fifteen tracks. Wrap your ears around Judith Bingham’s The Orphan Girl and marvel at her ingenious harmonies. John Duggan’s Over the Moon puts you right there: into the blue beyond. Hilary Campbell’s setting of Blow the Wind Southerly drags the old ditty two generations away from Ferrier’s hand-crafted, perilous simplicities to an era of faceless industrial fishing. Campbell is the conductor here of the professional chamber choir, Blossom Street.

The standout track is James MacMillan’s Lassie, Wad Ye Loe Me?, a Scottish maiden’s misty dirge with a defiant undertone. MacMillan wrote it as a wedding song for a pair of pals. I shall be singing it in the shower all next week, and inviting friends to join. Terrific stuff.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com






`



July 15, 2013

Raluca Stirbat: Go-Between
(Gramola)
****

The Bucharest intelligentsia used to imagine they lived in an outer suburb of Paris, so aspirational was French influence in their Romanesque corner of Europe. In this bilateral recital, an exceptional Romanian pianist performs delicate Gallic sets by César Franck and Claude Debussy before applying heavy French polish, with a dash of added fire, to her own national heroes.

The Pièces Impromptus by Georges Enescu date from 1946, the last summer he spent in his homeland before escaping into French exile. Wondrously melodic, they ripple with mutually antagonistic rhythms and underlying tensions, possibly a reflection of his inner turmoil. Enecus stands head and shoulders in influence above all Rumanian composers. Stirbat, who recently campaigned to save his childhood home from demolition plays his pieces with the greatest empathy.

The composer Mihail Jora was found dying by Enescu in a military hospital during the First World War and literally played back to life by his mentor. His Joujoux suite (1925) has something of Debussy’s childhood pieces about it. Finally, Stirbat gives us Bartok’s Rumanian Folk Dances, a masterwork of musical anthropology played with limitless zest in a truly refreshing album.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com






`



July 8, 2013

Timo Andres: Home Stretch
(Nonesuch)
***

Not a composer you’d want to take too seriously, Andres spends much of this album messing up a Mozart concerto. The rest consists of two original compositions for keyboard and orchestra – one of them a nostalgic sort of homeward bound piece that provides the title track and the other a languid, rather envious paraphrase on themes of Brian Eno.

But it’s Mozart that’s the meat of the album. Andres takes on the so-called Coronation Concerto and subjects it to random deconstruction, bending a theme way out of tune or so far off line that it becomes a completely different subject. These are clever little mind games and, for the first few bends, you will smile and go along with his fancy.

But the joke wears out before the concerto does and I’m not sure it bears repetition. Andres, raised in rural Connecticut, has formidable fingers and a quirky mind that bears some comparison to the early Thomas Ades. But the dominant voices on this album belong to others. His own, at the moment, is frustratingly shy.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com





Three symphonies



Mendelssohn: Italian, Scottish
(Glossa)
**

Why is the Orchestra of the 18th Century, conductor Franz Brüggen, playing music by Felix Mendelssohn, who was born in 1809 and looked resolutely into the future. This is early music correctness gone off the scale. The playing is decent, but would sound much better on 19th century instruments.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical







Elgar: 2nd symphony
(Bis)
****

Why is the Stockholm Philharmonic playing the less tractable of Elgar’s symphonies? Because its conductor, Sakari Oramo, fell in love with the piece while working in Birmingham and wants to teach it to the world. The performance is supple to the point of slickness and very appealing in the first two movements. It loses wit in the Rondo, but the finale has swagger and the sound quality is outstanding. Stockholm is fast becoming a musical destination.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical







Bruckner: 6th symphony
(Atma)
***

Yannick Nézet-Séguin made his claim to world attention with Bruckner 7,8 and 9, performed by Montreal’s Metropolitain orchestra. The sound texture in the sixth is less appealing and the ceremonial aspects of Bruckner’s music are allowed to overwhelm dramatic coherence. Refer to Klemperer for a recording that leaves no doubts.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical






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July 1, 2013

Elliott Carter: volume 9
(Chandos)
****

Fun with Elliott Carter is not a phrase I ever expected my fingers to tap out. The US composer, who died last year at the age of 103, was a reflective intellectual who erred, if at all, on the side of asceticism. Which is to say, he could be as dry as dust.

But the three songs that open this album consist of a mock Elizabethan madrigal and two ballads that could have been written by Samuel Barber were the orchestration not so witty. A great big smile spreads across my chops.

Onto the serious stuff. Charles Rosen, the polymath pianist who died a month after Carter, plays pinball here with the prodigiously difficult, almost unfathomable Carter concerto of 1967, a work in which, according to the composer, ‘the soloist becomes increasingly dissociated from and opposed to the orchestra’. You can say that again.

But no way is Rosen going to lose this fight. The Basel Sinfonietta under conductor Joel Smirnoff may think they’re leading the way, but the concerto is not over until the fat pianist clangs, and, when it’s over, you want to hear it again just to revel in the sumo-wrestling aspect of this musical fitness test.

Like I said: fun. (Who would have guessed from the library-style album title?)

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June 25, 2013

Paul Ben-Haim: Chamber works
(Chandos)
***

The foremost composer in the early years of the state of Israel, Ben-Haim was a romantic nationalist in an alien landscape. Munich born in 1897, Paul Frankenburger) docked at Haifa in 1933 and was shocked to discover that Europe did not hold a monopoly on musical tonalities. He took a Hebrew surname and, inspired by a Yemenite folksinger, Bracha Zefira, composed Hebrew songs in microtones, with ultra-correct German precision.

His chamber music, written for domestic use under the heavy skies of a Tel Aviv summer, has fallen into disuse; this release is an illuminating introduction. Passing quickly over a juvenile piano quartet, we discover a kindred spirit to Bartok, ears wide open to indigenous and ambient sounds, feet ever ready to jump up and learn a Beduin dance.

The most attractive pieces, athletically played here by Canada’s ARC ensemble, are a pair of violin-piano jigs written for the visiting virtuoso Zino Francescatti, and a quintet for clarinet and strings that hovers between the bourgeois salon and the high-jinks of a klezmer band against a backdrop of heat and dust. Ben Haim died in 1984, never fully acclimatised to his newfound land. The record cover is a stunning portrait of Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Square in pristine Bauhaus design. No photographer credited, but a joy to behold.

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Three concerto albums



Schumann/Dvorak
(Naïve)
***

The Dvorak piano concerto is a relative rarity, the Schumann ubiquitous. Both are sweetly rendered by Francesco Piemontesi, with the BBC Symphony Orch, cond. Jiri Belohlavek. They make the more persuasive case for the Dvorak, played in the original 1883 version; the andante of the Dvorak simply must be heard.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical







Dvorak A-major cello concerto
(Fuga Libera)
****

Written in his 20s and not performed until the composer was long dead, the juvenile work anticipates the great B-minor cello concerto of 1895 in depth of tone and colour. It has a couple of original themes and is unmistakably Dvorak. But the mastery has yet to develop and the listener’s interest fades long before the last chord. Alexander Rudin directs Moscow’s Musica Viva very ably from the soloist’s seat.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical







Debussy, Francaix, Poulenc, Ravel
(Hänssler)
**

Nice idea, but the Debussy piano concerto is juvenile, the Francaix is frippery, the Poulenc fizzles out after an arresting opening and only the Ravel G major counts as an unqualified masterpiece. Florian Uhlig has all the fun at the keyboard. The radio orchestra of Saarbrücken manage to keep up, under Pablo Gonzalez’s baton.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical






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June 17, 2013

Chopin, Dutilleux: Preludes
(Champs Hill)
***

An intriguing concept by the rising Romanian pianist, Alexandra Dariescu, this is the first of three releases to contain the complete preludes of different composers - in this instance Frederic Chopin and Henri Dutilleux. It is also the first Dutilleux recording to appear since his death last month in Paris, aged 97.

The two composers, separated by a century and more, are joined by a city and its culture. Both regarded the conquest of Paris as the summit of their dreams. Both conceived sounds of rare refinement.

There is short measure here in Dutilleux – only three preludes against Chopin’s 26. Each of the three, however, is a perfect gem, none more so than the playful and perplexing Jeu de Contraires (Game of Opposites), which Dariescu opens up, alyer by layer, like a Russian doll.

In Chopin, her playing is never less than pleasing, if seldom revelatory. What is outstanding here is the piano sound at Champs Hill, along with Vladimir Mojico’s rainswept record cover, a quirky, modern take on Renoir’s Les Parapluies. Nice, when a small label still cares for appearances.

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Three pianists



Frederic Mompou
(Sony)
**

Arcadi Volodos shot out of Russia around the same time as Evgeny Kissin, but settled in Spain and has travelled less. His first album in quite a while focuses on the contemplative Spanish composer Mompou. It’s mood music with filmic atmosphere but the attention flags before the disc stops.

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Handel: suites for keyboard
(Sony)
***

Daria van den Bercken rides round Amsterdam on her bike inviting people to her home for tea and Handel. Her debut disc is full of flair and passion, beautifully recorded. The bonus is a little-known Mozart tribute to Handel.

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Russian album
(Sony)
***

Olga Scheps, a young Russian in Paris, plays drawing-room miniatures that reveal great skill and little taste. You reach the 11th track before you hear what she can do with Scriabin and Rachmaninov – and it’s not negligible.

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June 10, 2013

Conrad Tao: Voyages
(EMI Classics)
*

This album is an instant collectible. It marks the record debut of the last artist to be signed by EMI Classics before the label disappears.

The artist is 19 years old, born in Illinois to Chinese immigrant parents and drawn to both piano and violin. At 14, he played concertos by Mendelssohn, one for each instrument, in the same concert. He also composes.

Here, he plays solo piano, opening with a winsome shard of minimalism by Meredith Monk, whom he claims as an influence. He follows with preludes by Rachmaninov, Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit and some works of his own. It is all rather accomplished for a musician of his age.

Regrettably, it is no more than rather. The playing in Rachmaninov and Ravel lacks signature or singularity. Tao plays the pieces off pat, all the notes in place and mostly joined together. He has nothing new to say. As for his own creations, which include a six-minute sketch for piano and iPad, they are little more than doodles, tiny ideas with nowhere to go. Tao has a definite musical facility that may develop over time. As the very last artist on EMI Classics, he turns out the lights with a mere whimper.

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June 3, 2013

Fairy Tales
(Verso)
****

Why did no-one think of this before? A batch of bedtime stories, wickedly recited by top actors, interspersed with music derived from the selfsame fairy tales. Simple, and brilliantly done.

Start with a subversive version of Cinderella – minimum age six, I’d reckon – read by Tom Conti and sandwiched between two dances from Prokofiev’s Cinderella suite, reduced for violin (Matthew Trusler) and piano (Martin Roscoe). This makes bedtime so much more fun for parents and kids than it ever was before.

Clive Owen gives a silky reading Jabberwocky, while Kenneth Branagh’s makes merry nonsense of Edward Lear’s verse, bookended by two Shostakovich dances. The music is age-neutral and the whole album feels like a family affair, a marriage of lightness and lilt. Click on Stravinsky’s Circus-Polka and Spike Milligan’s Jumbo Jet and you’ll get the point….

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Three Bach sets



Cello suites
(Sony)
****

Jan Vogler’s Stradivarius has a tone so rich it’s almost indecent. His playing is quick and supple and the New York studio is appropriately resonant. Among several sets this year, these suites have easily the best sound. Sadly, Sony don’t both to credit the studio team.

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Concertos
(Onyx)
***

Viktoria Mullova (violin) and Ottavio Danone (harpsichord/director) have found a remarkable rapport in Bach – so much so that you forget whether the concerto they are playing was written for the violin or transcribed from another instrument. Either way, the performances just fizz along with the Accademia Bizantina.

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Orchestral suites
(Harmonia Mundi)
****

Expect organic from the Akademie für alte Musik Berlin? You got it. But more, much more. The tempi are fiery and full of risk, all done without a named director. Thrilling performances from 1996.

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May 20, 2013

Igor Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring
(Verso)
*****/****

Stravinsky was merciless to conductors who attempted his signature work. Herbert von Karajan’s recording he dismissed as ‘too bland’, Pierre Boulez’s as ‘effortless… too fast’. Leonard Bernstein he berated for adding ‘excessive dynamics’. Even Pierre Monteux, who conducted the riotous 1913 premiere, came in for muttered criticisms of his subsequent performances.

Given that Stravinsky’s own three recordings differ widely from one another in tempi and ambience, the composer is the last person on earth to preach consistency. Still, if the man who write the music declares a performance to be downright wrong, why should we bother to listen to it?

Because it can be downwrong right. Leonard Bernstein’s 1958 Rite recording with the New York Philharmonic is a case in point. It explodes out of nowhere like a thunderstorm at sea and keeps us gripping the sides for dear life. Digitally remastered from Howard Scott’s excellent studio sessions, the woodwinds come through with wide-eyed clarity, driven almost to the limits of human breath. Bernstein liked to remind musicians that Stravinsky’s original title for the work was ‘The Kiss of the Earth’, a fusion of sex, youth and nature. This account ticks all three boxes. No matter how many Rites you own, this one is not to be resisted.

The older Stravinsky would probably have preferred Yuri Temirkanov’s 2010 recording with the St Petersburg Philharmonic – measured, manicured and unmistakably Russian in its intermittent melancholia. There are episodes of exquisite natural beauty and organic sounds. What’s missing is Bernstein’s abandon, but the details are delicious. These are two extremes of how the Rite can sound. Take your pick.

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Three contemporary CDs



Magnus Lindberg: EXPO
(DaCapo)
***

The Swedish composer in residence at the New York Philharmonic presents three large works in shimmering, rich textures that remind me of an ocean liner seen from afar. The filling in this convoy is a big-boned piano concerto for Yefim Bronfman. Every orchestra should have a resident like Lindberg.

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Dobrinka Tabakova: String Paths
(ECM)
**

Bulgarian-British, Tabakova creates hypnotic fusions in the manner of Gavin Bryars with an underlying ache of exile. It makes for very easy listening. The biggest and best piece is a cello concerto, sensationally played by Kristina Blaumane.

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David Chesky: The New York Rags
(Chesky Records)
****

Chesky takes 18 facets of the sleepless city and plays the a** off them. Edgy, energetic neurotic, you name it, I particularly loved ‘The Bernstein’ and ‘Kids You’re Late for School Rag’.

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May 7, 2013

Joseph Nebra: From Silence
(Verso)
***

Little known outside Spain, Nebra (1702-1768) composed around 50 operas and stage works, as well as a large volume of church music in his capacity as Deputy Master of the Royal Chapel in Madrid. What we hear on this album for the first time is his keyboard music, which has gathered dust in church and private archives, its originality unrecognised.

The sonatas and toccatas reveal an intelligent musician who is searching for a language that is as far away as possible from Domenico Scarlatti, dominant in Spain at the time. Secure in his classical structures Nebra writes in a manner reminiscent of early Haydn or Mozart – frisky, entertaining and easy to absorb, or ignore. One imagines these pieces were intended for ruling-class dinner parties; if so, they could serve the same purpose today.

Where Nebra arrests the attention is in his slow pieces, marked Grave, some of which are so slow they stop the clock and ask big questions about life on earth. The music feels at once familiar and entirely fresh. Moises Fernandez Via plays the set with great daring on a modern instrument in a Massachusetts banqueting hall, finishing off one of the incomplete Graves with his own improvisation. Try it for dessert.

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Four Mozart concertos



Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli
(ICA Classics)
****

The touch is like no other. After a pedestrian introduction from the Stuttgart Radio orchestra (conductor Antoine de Bavier), the pianist enters with the sound of a raindrop in a water barrel. Uncanny, inimitable, you must hear Michaelgeli in the K466 and K415 concertos, recorded in 1956 mono. No second thoughts.

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Angela Hewitt
(Hyperion)
***

The Canadian pianist is recording the set in an Italian mountain resort, far from the studio pressures of the big city. There’s a congenial feel to these performances, ideally suited to the vivacious K453 concerto. The climactic K595 feels a tad too laid back for my taste. Hannu Lintu conducts the Mantua chamber orchestra.

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Alessandro Carbonare
(DG)
**

Claudio Abbado’s principal clarinet in the Mozart Orchestra can play the concerto with one hand tied behind his back, or so it seems. He has a fabulous tone, but he makes the music sound like child’s play. The companions works are the bassoon and second flute concertos.

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Romain Guyot
(Mirare)
***

The Chamber Orchestra of Europe and its principal clarinet play the concerto without benefit of conductor. The added freedom is audible in Guyot’s playing – his playfulness – which lifts the performance above the common run. Five orchestra members then add an admirably well-sprung account of the clarinet quintet.

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April 29, 2013

Shostakovich: 7th symphony
(Naxos)
****

Liverpool’s cycle of Shostakovich symphonies stands apart from all previous recordings for its edginess and its youth. Vasily Petrenko, the conductor, is 36 years old. He grew up in the dying embers of Communism and addresses the symphonies with no ideological agenda. He performs the Leningrad Symphony not as a relic of an historic event but as a work of music that demands objective interpretation in a different century.

The ear is struck immediately by his refusal to overplay textural excesses. The atmosphere is quieter, less ominous than we’re used to. Flutes and clarinets are reduced to a whisper and strings to a hushed susurrus. When the climaxes explode, they do so with total shock and desperation. Between extremes, the conductor maintains an even emotional keel, avoiding the risk of melodrama that Bartok so wickedly caricatured in his Concerto for Orchestra. Petrenko puts his mind to saving the symphony from itself.

Playing in another port-city at the western edge of a civilisation, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra deliver delicacy, empathy and, when required, astonishing power. The recorded sound is a shade below pristine (my only reservation) but the performance is treasurable, a terrific affirmation of a towering masterpiece.

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Three Latino releases



Ernesto Lecuona: The piano music
(Bis)
***

Six CDs of music by a fascinating Cuban composer and pianist, who played the halls of Europe and won the envy of Ravel. Lecuona (1895-1963) has a rhythm all his own and an inexhaustible reservoir of dance tunes. How Thomas Tirino manages to stay seated at his piano is a mystery. The Polish Radio orchestra accompanies.

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Brazilian sentiments
(Capriccio)
****

Cristiane Roncaglio sings the socks off a set by Jobim, Villa-Lobos and others less known. Accompanied alternately on piano and guitar, she gives a semi-latte vocal flavour to these dark, romantic and insistently evocative ballads. Try one, you won’t resist the rest.

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La Pasionara
(Delphian)
****

Irresistible Argentine melancholy from Valentina Montoya Martinez and Galsgow’s Mr McFall’s Chamber. The songs are by Astor Piazzolla and Valentina herself. They speak of the force of love, and its futility. The voice is sultry, bruised, undefeated. Lovely.

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April 29, 2013

Valentin Silvestrov: Piano works
(Grand Piano)
***

When the Soviet Union collapsed, a generation of fine composers vanished into the vortex. Bereft of a parent state that fed and restrained them, some embraced exile, others bewailed the loss. Valentin Silvestrov, a Ukrainian rebel in Soviet times, adopted a baby-faced musical innocence that is at once appealing and disturbing.

His set ‘Naïve Music’ sounds as if it could have been written by Tchaikovsky, a pair of waltzes defer to Chopin. Silvestrov refers obliquely to his ‘metaphorical style’ but what one hears is close to imitiation. Beyond that beats a heart that aches for the certainties of melody and a head that knows exactly how to steer a tune clear of sentimentality. If you love Chopin, you will wonder why Chopin didn’t write these waltzes first.

Elisaveta Blumina, an accomplshed Leningrad pianist exiled in Dublin, delivers marbled enigmatic serenity, much as Tatiana Nikolayeva did when she played the Bach-like preludes and fugues written by Dmitri Shostakovich in darker times. There may be secrets in this neo-classical revival for John Le Carre to decode.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical





Three Rachmaniov recordings



Cello sonata
(Oehms)
***

The German cellist Julian Steckel, 30, is more sentimental than most Russians in this ultra-romantic sonata. Paul Rivinius is the pianist. Prokofiev’s late sonata is the companion piece.

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Cello sonata
(Onyx)
****

The British-based cellist Leonard Elschenbroich pairs an attractively muscular account of the Rachmaninov with a thoughtful reading of the little-known cello version of Shostakovich’s deathbed viola sonata. Alexei Grynyuk is the pianist and the sound is outstanding.

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3rd symphony
(Naxos)
****

The Detroit SO with Leonard Slatkin give one of the most compelling accounts of the symphony’s hypnotic hushed opening. The Adagio slackens off a bit, but the orch’s in fine fettle and go on to raise the roof in Symphonic Dances. Fabulous sound.

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April 22, 2013

The Edge of Light
(Harmonia Mundi)
****

Sometimes composers are best understood by what they do least. Neither Olivier Messiaen nor Kaija Saariaho wrote much for piano. Both use large orchestras and unconventional instruments to describe the world they inhabit. Messiaen (1908-1992) evokes wonderment at the idea of love and the glories of nature. Saariaho (born 1952) explores human intimacies. For both composers, the piano was a working tool rather than a means of expression.

Or so one is led to believe. But this remarkable cache of little-known piano music connects the two composers in unexpected ways, tracing their common heritage in the impressionistic pianism of Claude Debussy. Messiaen’s Eight Préludes are an early set, written after his mother’s death in 1929. Rather than mourning his loss, he seeks meaning in a kaleidoscope of colours. His piano quintet is a three-minute valediction from the year before his death. Together, the two pieces bookend his life with the intensity of confession.

Saariaho’s piano works, solo and quintet, are sandwiched between two of heroperas. With titles such as ‘I unveil my skin’ and ‘Open up to me, fast’, the intent is transparent and the emotion clinical. Gloria Cheng drives the keyboard, the Calder Quartet provide energetic strings. No sworn fan of either composer, I warmed to this album on first hearing, and keep returning to it.

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April 15, 2013

Lionel Bringuier & Nelson Freire
(BelAir)
***

Bringuier, 26, is the youngest conductor since Gustavo Dudamel to take command of a world-class orchestra. He has been announced, almost unknown, as David Zinman’s successor at the Zurich Tonhalle and there’s much curiosity as to what he can do. This DVD of a 2010 BBC Proms concert is the first evidence of his abilities on record.

Looking even younger than he really is, Bringuier opens with a Toscanini favourite – Berlioz’s Le Corsaire overture – and makes it entirely his own. Barely a minute in, he freezes the tempo to release the most delicate of clarinet lines. It’s a daring gesture, a declaration of intent: this conductor knows exactly what’s needed to bring the music to life.

In the concerto, Chopin’s second, the august Brazilian soloist Nelson Freire turns deeply inward, with little for the conductor to do except keep the orchestra in harness. The symphony is Albert Roussel’s Third, a relative rarity outside of France. Bringuier teases out the emotion that lies beneath its brocaded bourgeois formality, no small feat for an interpreter. DVD may not be everyone’s favourite format for listening to music but, if this young man goes half as far as the Zurich musicians predict, this debut release will be a collector’s item many years from now.

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Three cello concerto CDs



Moeran
(Naxos)
***

Ernest Moeran’s post-war oncerto of 1945 is reminiscent all too frequently of Elgar’s, replacing its emotional wrench with gentle nostalgia. Guy Johnston gives a lovely, lyrical account. The Ulster Orchestra append Moeran’s Merrie England Serenade in G.

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Strauss: Don Quixote
(Hyperion)
****

There hasn’t been a fresher performance in years of the ‘fantastic variations’ that this. Alban Gerhardt is the dominant Don, Lawrence Power’s viola his Sancho Panza. Markus Stenz conducts the excellent Gurzenich Orchestra of Cologne. Till Eulenspiegel is the filler. Lovely.

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Bloch, Bridge, Hough
(Bis)
***

Steven Isserlis’s attack on Bloch’s Schelomo is fiercer by half than Natalie Clein’s recent stunner, and maybe more authentic; the Kings of Israel were not softies. His account of Frank Bridge’s Oration is vigorous and eloquent. The slight let-down is the rambling third piece, Stephen Hough’s The Loneliest Wilderness. Hugh Wolf conducts the DSO Berlin

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical






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April 8, 2013

Bela Bartok: Kossuth
(CPO)
***

The only great composer ever to launch his orchestral career in Manchester, Bartok made his debut in February 1904, aged 22, with a 20-minute suite of such untypicality that it was sidelined in his worklist and left to languish unheard. Kossuth is a symphonic poem of the kind that Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler popularised 20 years earlier.

Named after a hero of the 1848 Hungarian revolt against the Austrian Empire, it cloaks Lajos Kossuth in romantic tonality and relates his life in ten episodes of progressive futility. As the Austrians near victory (track 8), Bartok plays in Haydn’s Kaiser anthem. Hans Richter, Wagner’s house conductor, gave the work its Manchester premiere and one English newspaper healdined it ‘Strauss Out-Straussed’.

Bartok never returned to mainstream romanticism. In the next decade he explored indigenous Balkan and North African musics, finding his voice at the edge of the tonal spectrum. But it makes no sense to cut Kossuth out of his biography. This excellent performance by Cornelius Meister and the Vienna radio orchestra reveals a host of might-have-beens, the false paths young Bela might have taken if Manchester had acclaimed his first venture. These intriguing hints reinforce the innocent idealism of the piece, beckoning you to hear it again.

Bartok’s Rumanian Dances are given an equally vivid restoration, but the Concerto for Orchestra at the centre of this album lacks the caustic savagery of 1940s loss and exile.

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Three male singers



Lawrence Brownlee
(Opus Arte)
***

The US lyric tenor is so persuasive in his own language that idiomatic flaws are all too easily suspected in French, German, Italian and Spanish art songs. His account of Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child is, of itself, worth the album price. Ian Burnside accompanies.

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Arnold Bezuyen
(Oehms)
***

The Wagnerian tenor sounds overly dramatic in Schumann’s Dichterliebe; the surprise is how deftly he delivers seven early songs by Alban Berg, drifting to the edge of tonality. Jura Margulis is the pianist.

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Ian Bostridge
(EMI)
**

The voice closest in colour to Peter Pears’s sings four sets of Britten songs for piano (Antonio Pappano) and one for guitar (Xuefei Yang). Brittenites will adore this album. It left me cold as a winter pond.

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March 24, 2013

Salomone Rossi, Jewish polyphony at the Gonzaga Court
(Glossa Cabinet)
***

In the 1820s, when Meyerbeer and Mendelssohn rose to prominence in Paris and Berlin, it was widely assumed that they were the first Jewish composers to write in the western, classical tradition. That was a partial truth. Jewish musicians had played since the Renaissance in many courts of Europe, where they were obliged to conceal their ethnic identity or convert to Christianity.

Salmone Rossi (c.1570-1630) was an outstanding exception. A colleague of Monteverdi’s in Mantua, he flourished as concertmaster and composer in a ducal haven of relative religious tolerance. He wrote madrigals for court dances, trio sonatas for pracice, swoony little love songs and a large volume of new tunes for the sabbath and festival Jewish liturgy.

The gulf between Italian baroque curlicues and guttural Hebrew texts would seem too large for any composer to bridge, no matter how well versed he was in both cultures. Rossi solves the difference by choosing prayers that are traditionally susceptible to vocal decoration – such as the cantor’s Kaddish – and treating each word of the prayer on rhythmic merit. The result is always agreeable and often uplifting, the charm of the music dispelling doubts of its aptness. Belgium’s Ensemble Daedalus perform a mix of Rossi’s religious and secular works with sweet voices and infallible enunciation. It sounds almost like the dawn of multiculturalism.

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Four vocal albums



Hubert Parry: From a city window
(Delphian)
***

The Edwardian drawing-room re-enacted by the rich voices of Ailish Tynan, Susan Bickley and William Dazeley, evocatively directed from the piano of Parry’s boyhood home in Gloucestershire by the exceptional Iain Burnside. Parry was not a powerful mind but his songs are several rungs above Elgar’s.

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Tell Me the Truth about Love
(Champs Hill)
**

Despite the pretentious title song and the concept packaging, big-voiced Amanda Roocroft finds charm and flashes of humour in four sets of German, French and Brittenish songs. Joseph Middleton accompanies.

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Wagner – Klaus Florian Vogt
(Sony)
****

You will not hear a sweeter, truer tenor all Wagner year. Not another word. Jonathan Nott conducts the Bamberg symphony; Camilla Lund joins for duets from Tristan and Walküre. It doesn’t get much better than this.

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March 13, 2013

Rachmaninov: piano concertos, Paganini Rhapsody
(Decca)
****

A Ukrainian pianist, sidelined in North Carolina,, began filming herself at practice and uploading the videos online. Within four years, Valentina Lisitsa was the most-watched pianist in history with more than 40 million Youtube views. To the world at its screens, she is more famous than Horowitz and Van Cliburn combined. This, belatedly, is her first orchestral recording.

She paid for it herself, hiring the London Symphony Orchestra, Abbey Road and veteran producer Michael Fine, flying over for three sets of meticulously planned sessions. Unable to afford a big-brand conductor, she made a virtue of necessity and shared her interpretative ideas by video with LSO player-turned-conductor Michael Francis to avoid wasting a minute of expensive studio time.

The first thing that strikes you about this set is the pianist’s authority, her absolute conviction that each phrase can only be articulated in a certain way, her way. The assertiveness is most pronounced in the less performed concertos, the first and fourth, where she teases out subtle shifts that are commonly blown away in a blizzard of notes. The first concerto is played with a delicately calibrated rise of dynamic tension and the fourth with an empathetic and profoundly moving sense of irredeemable exile. In the C-minor concerto, she sidesteps melancholy and Brief Encounter romance to suggest a more innocent, hopeful kind of love, while in the D-minor she avoids tripwires at sensationally high speed, negotiating the tender Intermezzo without excess morbidity. The Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini turns into a bit of a romp, with the LSO in cracking form and Michael Fine delivering pellucid sound and perfect balance.

Any pianist addressing these concertos has to overcome the composer’s 1920s recordings as well as those of his most-cherished interpreter, Vladimir Horowitz, and four more generations of brilliant performances. Bearing these monuments in mind, I find this the most compelling full set of Rachmaninov concertos since Vladimir Ashkenazy’s with Andre Previn 40 years ago, a recording that perfectly captures its moment. Both the orchestra and the label are the same. Sometimes, these things are no coincidence. A tradition is renewed.

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Three piano originals



Galina Ustvolskaya: 6 sonatas, 12 preludes
(Piano Classics)
***

A loner from mid-life on, Ustvolskaya turned down an offer of marriage from Dmitri Shostakovich and applied herself to writing hard-edged piano pieces of deceptive simplicity. She was present for these 1995 Moscow recordings by Ivan Sokolov and gave them her approval, but newcomers to her music might seek out more emollient performances.

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Hilding Rosenberg: Piano pieces
(Capriccio)
***

The first musical modernist in Sweden, Rosenberg (1892-1985) immersed himself in the 1920s in the Second Vienna School and shocked his countrymen with unsuspected atonalities. Played here by Ana Christensson, the music lacks Schoenberg’s passion or Webern’s rage. It is very Swedish in its moderation, and rather lovely.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com







Billy Mayerl: Piano music
(Somm)
****

The premier piano syncopator of London’s 1920s palm courts, Mayerl (1903-59) was a finger wizard whose fun pieces were tinged with melancholy – a quality perfectly captured here by the Irish pianist Philip Martin. A little morsel titled ‘Wistaria’ sums him up to a tee. Listen to more than three short pieces and you won’t want it to end.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical






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February 25, 2013

Satie & Compagnie
(Mirare)
***

Nobody does chillout like the French, and no Frenchman does it better than Erik Satie. A crackpot in many ways, dressed in green velvet in all seasons and never without an umbrella, Satie invented the idea of background music, which he called ‘musique d’ameublement’ (furniture music). At recitals, he urged audiences to walk around and chat while the musicians played. Muzak took that idea and ran with it.

You can play a baby to sleep with one of Satie's Gnossiennes, or wind a weary executive down with it faster than two fingers of scotch. Along with its soporific qualities, the music of Satie possesses an intensity that shuts out the busy world and envelops you in its shimmers.

What the marvellous Anne Quéffélec contrives on this unmedicated compilation is a panoply of sounds by Satie and his contemporaries, of whom the best known are Debussy, Ravel, Poulenc and Reynaldo Hahn. The flaw with albums of this kind is that the best is ever the enemy of the merely good. A Reverie of Debussy is worth ten little pieces by Déodat de Séverac. A fanfare of Ravel’s stands out a Mont Blanc higher than any morceau of Gabriel Dupont.

Twin peaks above them all stands Satie, who is the veritable master of the piano miniature, his genius confirmed by repeated comparison. You will play this album urgently and often but you may find yourself hitting the skip button now and then. The Steinway sound at Poitiers, by the by, is celestial and Mme Quéffélec plays like an angel in a film noir.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com





Three concerto CDs



Elgar
(Telarc)
***

Before the 5* wonders of Alisa Weilerstein could fade from my ear, along comes an equally robust American attack on the English masterpiece. The cellist Zuill Bailey has the muscular ease of an Olympic athlete and an irresistible confidence. He knows where he’s going, and you’re happy to ride side-saddle. His large gestures leave little space for tenderness, but the momentum is upbeat and the outlook brighter than expected. Bailey is let down by patches of unrefined Indianapolis sound (conductor Krzystof Urbanski) and an inappropriate coupling – a selection from Smetana’s Ma Vlast.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com







Brahms
(DG)
***

Lisa Batiashvili makes the violin concerto sound so sunny and relaxed you can hardly remembered that Brahms was once feared for his Sturm und Drang. There are no profoundities to this interpretation beyond the enjoyment of beauty and nature in the flawless company of the Dresden Staatskapelle, conductor Christian Thielemann. The filler is a set of romances for violin and piano (Alice Sara Ott) by Brahms’s adored and unattainable Clara Schumann.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com







Liszt
(Pentatone)
****

Nareh Arghamanyan, an Armenian pianist new to me, is deceptively more reflective than most in the two concertos, though she can compete with anyone for speed in the great crashing descents that Liszt uses to end a line of thought. The orchestra is Berlin Radio (conductor Alain Altinoglu) and the two fillers are absolute crackers – the hair-raising Totentanz and the Fantasy on Hungarian Folktunes. Fresh and effervescent, this is a soloist to watch out for.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical






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February 18, 2013

The Coral Sea
(Delphian)
****

Every now and then a record announces from the opening spin that you’re in for a really good time. Six works by five living British composers for soprano saxophone hardly sounds like an invitation to the dance, but the moment Sue McKenzie blows up the weird Caledonian wail of Gabriel Jackson’s title piece you just want to sit back and sip the smoky malt.

Sue plays the sweetest, most serene soprano sax you will ever hear outside a jazz den. She is piloted through uncharted waters by Ingrid Sawers, piano. The Coral Sea sounds like it ought to: limitless, enchanting and implacable. Jackson, chiefly a choral composer, finds an almost-human timbre in the soprano sax and makes it sing and keen for all it’s worth.

Graham Fitkin’s two pieces have a Mersey-like murk, somehow gloomy and yet a bit giggly at the same time. Nikki Iles, a composer I had never heard before, makes the sax sing nightclub languid and low in a piece called Alma Venus. Two Memorials by Mark-Anthony Turnage are too short by half, gone before they’ve broken the surface. But the concluding Allegrasco by Gavin Bryars is a world entire, a story that invents its own time and makes the second malt absolutely mandatory.

The soprano sax is, unlike the operatic category, two sizes smaller than a tenor. It doesn’t sound that way. If you only buy one saxophone record this year, make this the one.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.co.uk





Three remarkable pianists:



Cezara-Lucia Vladescu
****

A classical pianist who has played at Carnegie Hall, Cezara last year won the public prize at the Montreux Jazz Competition. Her debut album, privately produced but available through all online outlets, takes teasing fragments of classical works and turns them into jazz meditations. The ear is taken in a single phrase from Bach to Chopin to Schumann to Cezara and the journey is altogether enchanting. This pianist demands to be heard live.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com







Caroline Sageman
(Lyrinx)
****

The youngest-ever finalist in the Warsaw Chopin competition, Sageman plays the Polonaises in mid-life as if they are her life’s purpose. Gone is the competitor’s showiness. What we hear is a mind and a set of fingers plunging ever deeper into Chopin’s textures in search of an elusive truth. Set beside recent showboaters, this is Chopin from the source.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.co.uk







Maria Joao Pires
(DG)
****

No grandmother pianist has sounded so curious and clear-sighted as Pires does in this ear-opening pair of two Schubert sonatas (D845 and D960). Just when you think you know all that can be done with these mine-shafts of introspection, Pires inserts a dimension of surprise and wisdom that will make you rethink everything you thought you knew about the music.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com






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February 4, 2013

Scarlatti Illuminated
(Onyx)
****

Domenico Scarlatti was born in 1685 and overshadowed by two giants who shared his birthday year, Johann Sebatian Bach and George Frederic Handel. Worse luck, instead of staying home in Naples and writing operas for rich traders as hus father did, Domenico veered off to the relative obscurity of Portugal and Spain where, working for the royal families, he turned out exactly 555 solo sonatas for the harpsichord.

This was not a good career move. Excess, in music, is a natural deterrent. The public will never tolerate 555 of anything, so it is little short of a miracle that some music by Scarlatti junior was taken up by 19th and 20th century virtuosi, adapted for the heavier sonorities of the grand piano and often used as a first encore to help the audience settle down after the big showpiece.

Two famous soloists, Carl Tausig and Ignaz Friedman, made modern transcriptions of Scarlatti pieces; and Vladimir Horowitz was prone to slip Scarlatti into the gap between Scriabin and Prokofiev. What this album does, as none before, is give us the chance to hear both baroque and romantic-style Scarlatti, played side-by-side on a concert grand. It’s quite a ride.

At 24 years old, Joseph Moog knows no fear. He takes the virtuosic slaloms eyes wide open and then reins back without brakes for the onset of baroque curlicues. I have a feeling we’re going to hear much more of Moog. German born, he has an original turn of mind and an impressive technique. The music is never less than unexpected, with an occasional wistful quirk that hints at might-have-beens. Contrary to the usual rules, this album could be a career-making release.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical





Three fine cellists



Quirine Versen
(Etcetera)
****

An obscure sonata by a 19 year-old Kurt Weill, remarkably mature, leads into the equally unplayed opus 1 by Hans Pfitzner and the well-known romantic sonata of Samuel Barber. The dialogue between Versen and her pianist Silke Avenhaus is quiet, almost gossipy, making you want to listen all the more closely for nuance.

>Buy this CD at ArkivMusic







Christian Poltera
(Bis)
**

Pairing the Barber cello concerto with his sonata may have seemed a brilliant programming idea, but it’s too much of a good thing. The Swiss cellist plays a notably rich-sounding Guarnerius, too rich for this austere rep. Katherine Stott accompanies the sonata, Andrew Litton conducts the concerto. Even with an added Adagio for strings, the album offers less than an hour of music.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com







Jakob Kullberg
(Aurora)
**

Danish and brave, Kullberg plays three concertos by living Nordic composers – Per Norgard, Arne Nordheim and Kaija Saariaho. Nordheim’s in a single movement, is easiest to grasp; the other two require deep concentration. Kullberg plays with blithe satisfaction, as if they were Haydn. The New Music Orchestra are conducted by Szymon Bywalec.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com






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January 27, 2013

Andrzej Panufnik: Symphonies 7 & 8
(CPO)
****

Poland’s most successful composer fled to the West in 1954, settled in a London suburb and, with the Thames lapping at his cabin doorstep, wrote for the first time without fear or political pressure. Under Nazi occupation, Panufnik had played four-hand piano recitals in underground cafés with his friend Witold Lutoslawski. Under Stalinist rule, he was forced by the commissars to write big tunes and wear a broad smile. His early symphonies can sound a tad simplistic.

In London, he became his own man, creatively and intellectually. His works became complex in the best sense of the term, expressing an idea that has been clarified to the nth degree by an independent, questing mind. The music may not always sound easy on the ear, but it is never less than fascinating and readily comprehensible.

The 7th symphony, titled Metasinfonia, is an organ concerto with lots of work for the timpani and a sense of struggle that leads to redemption. The 8th, Sinfonia Votiva, was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and premiered with Seiji Ozawa in 1982. Dedicated to the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, it anticipates the religious revolt that toppled communism and reunited Panufnik, near the end of his life (he died in 1991), with Poland.

A third work here is the Concerto Festivo for the London Symphony Orchestra, advertising its solo v irtuosities in much the same way that Bartok does in his Concerto for Orchestra. There is not a dull moment on this album, the fifth in a series that Lukasz Borowicz is conducting for the 2014 composer’s centenary. The Konzerthaus orchestra of East Berlin play with unthrottled passion, in stunning sound.

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Three radio retrievals



Klaus Tennstedt
(ICA)
****

Bruckner and Mahler were Tennstedt’s prime specialities; who’d have imagined he would be so profound and evocative in the fourth symphony of Bohuslav Martinu? Tennstedt liked to say that he had a touch of Czech in him, but this is an interpretation to rank with the great Ancerl, penetrating a luminous sound world. It is paired with a glorious, ruminative performance of Brahms’s first, both played by the SWR Stuttgart Radio.

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Geza Anda
(ICA)
***

In an age of great pianists, the unassuming Hungarian gets unfairly overlooked. His account of the 2nd Brahms concerto (Otto Klemperer conducting) packs a massive punch – the kind of power you’d expect from Russians. The Tchaikovsky concerto, by contrast, he plays with an almost airy nonchalance and breath-taking subtlety (Georg Solti conducting). Absorbing interpretations with the orchestra of Cologne Radio. The soloist smokes a cigarette on the cover.

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Hans Rosbaud
(ICA)
**

One of the post-war pioneers of Mahler and modernism, a role model for Pierre Boulez, Rosbaud (1895-1962) remains near-unknown beyond German borders. His 1951 broadcast of Mahler’s fifth symphony from Cologne was a national ear-opener. On record for the first time, it is a persuasive performance if a little old-fashioned and too brisk in the Adagietto. The mono sound is too constricted for general pleasure.

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January 20, 2013

Dinu Lipatti: Piano music
(Avie)
***

The Rumanian pianist, who died tragically young of Hodgkin’s Disease in 1950, left some of the most intuitive and penetrating Chopin interpretations that exist on record. Like Chopin’s, Lipatti’s death at 33 overlaid his image with a false frailty, his name mentioned in hospital whispers. Yehudi Menuhin said he was ‘the manifestation of a spiritual realm, resistant to all pain and suffering.’

Yet there was nothing ethereal about Lipatti who remained, to the end, a virile, robust player with a decidedly modern outlook. Between ne recital and the next, he composed in a vivacious style, more for pleasure than posterity. This exploratory double-album contains a good deal of music that has never been recorded – or enjoyed - before.

A Concertino, dated 1936, was clearly written to impress his Paris teacher Nadia Boulanger, the world’s foremost champion of Stravinsky’s neo-classical style. In it, Lipatti mimics and faintly mocks Stravinsky’s 1929 Capriccio, one of the most entertaining works of the epoch. Like an overly erudite classical DJ, Lipatti tosses in bits of Bach, Haydn, Enescu and Bartok, playing spot-the-composer with gleeful abandon. The 18-minute confection is fizzingly well played by pianist Luiza Borac and the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, conductor Jaime Martin, a fun piece for social occasions.

Borac, a convinced Lipatti revivalist, takes us on through a sonata, a sonatine, a nocturne and a large fantasie, each of them original and derivative in equal measure. She follows up with Lipatti’s sparkling encore transcriptions of works by Albeniz and Bach. Evangelist though she is, Borac makes no excessive claims for this music beyond its simple attractions and wilful optimism. You will feel much the happier for hearing it.

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Three Mozart CDs



David Greilsamer
(Sony)
***

The Israeli pianist-director takes crisp, bright tempi in the 23rd symphony and Jeunehomme concerto with the Geneva Chamber Orchestra, following up with something called In-between. This is a world premiere of a 10-minute work for string quartet and orch by Denis Schuler, a wispy, whispery thing that tickles the ears like a night breeze before a Mozart overture as finale. Nice idea, doesn’t quite set the house alight.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com







The Mozart Sessions
(Paladino)
***

The Austrian pianist Markus Schirmer joins Boston ensemble A Far Cry in two concertos (K414-5) and a beefed-up sonata, all adorned with his own lead-ins and cadenzas. The playing is a bit breathless and there’s an edginess to the ensemble, but ears reared on rock music might well be captivated.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com







Geza Anda
(Hänssler)
****

The Hungarian pianist, who died young in 1976, recorded these two concertos (K453, 488) with the radio orchestra in Baden-Baden. The sound is a tad boxy and recessed but the Mozart style needs no commentary. Organic, gimmick-free, it lets the music speak for itself. He also gives a scintillating performance of the Ravel G-major concerto.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com






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January 15, 2013

Elgar, Carter: cello concertos
(Decca)
*****

Ever since a long-haired blonde with a raging migraine entered a dungeon studio 48 years ago to play the Elgar cello concerto, the beat-that recording has been Jacqueline du Pré’s on EMI. Musicians sensed it on that hot August day in 1965, converging from all over town on a whisper that something extraordinary was going on at Kingsway Hall. And the primacy of that performance was confirmed when Mstislav Rostropovich, the cellist’s cellist, refused to record the Elgar on the grounds that Jackie had made it her own.

Many have since had a shot, and fallen short. Not on thoughtfulness or skill – Natalie Clein and Paul Watkins are two fine recent interpreters – but in shaking off the shadow of a 20 year-old girl who found an intuitive understanding of an old man’s lament for a life destroyed by the first world war.

Alisa Weilerstein is the first cellist I have heard who plays the concerto as if Jackie never lived. Her entry is marked by a distinctive restraint, a refusal to make the big statement until the narrative is in full sway. Phrase by phrase, she takes us away from the terror and the pity and deep into a golden beauty. She does not so much detach the concerto from Elgar’s time as give it a greater relevance to present fragilities, of society teetering on the edge of change.

I find her reinterpretation utterly convincing. It is all the more daring for having, as conductor, none other than Daniel Barenboim, who was first married to du Pré, and an orchestra, the Berlin Staaskapelle, that has no roots in Elgar and his sound world. Against all odds, it works.

The pairings are even bolder. Weilerstein takes on and breathes life into a phlegmatic concerto by the centenarian American modernist Elliott Carter, a work of wisps and flutters and dark rustlings in the night. And she winds up with an irresistible reading of Bloch’s supplicatory Kol Nidrei, a fusion of ancient fears into eternal hope. For sheer courage, strong convictions and fabulous playing, nothing less than five stars will do.

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Three young pianists



David Fray
(Virgin)
****

Two Bach partitas, separated by a toccata, played on a modern piano with a dreamy air and no regard for political or academic correctness. Ten years ago, no serious label would have dared deny the dogmas of historically informed performance (HIP), but Fray is one of a new breed who play Bach as they feel it should sound, not as some professor has decreed it must. This is Bach rich in fantasy and spontaneity. Don’t ask permission. Just listen. You’ll want more.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com







Javier Negrin
(Odradek)
***

The little-known travel preludes of Alexander Scrabin, dating from the 1890s, sound more Mediterranean than Russian and the performer seems to need more than the average number of fingers and feet. Negrin, a Spanish pianist, tells a beguiling adventure story, rich in thrills and spills, and in a slightly swoony sound that is just right for these pieces.

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Denis Kozhukhin
(Onyx)
**

Winner of the 2010 Queen Elisabeth Competition, Kozhukhin plays three sonatas by Serge Prokofiev (nos 6-8) with intense power and concentration but none of the ominousness that these wartime works require. Some may warm to Kozhukhin’s an-historic neutrality; I couldn’t.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com






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January 2, 2013

Mauricio Kagel/Alexandre Tharaud
(Aeon)
****

Contemporary Classical is the biggest turnoff in the music rack. Most people seem to think it is either going to hurt their brains with complex theorems or numb their ears with repetitive simplicity. Often, they are right. Sometimes, they are missing out.

Mauricio Kagel (1931-2008) was an Argentine-German double-exile who could not resist poking sticks at the sacred cows of classical music. In Ludwig van, a 20-minute piece for small ensemble, he takes fragments of Beethoven’s most famous works and juxtaposes them with intrusive noises, bad singing, running water, false solemnity and all the tricks that post-modern art uses to smash the glass cases of museum culture. As a piece of satire, Ludwig van is an important statement, all the more timely on the eve of the Verdi-Wagner year. As a piece of music, it is good fun. As a work of art, you just want to own it.

Composers like Kagel, who live outside safe categories, live in the hope that a major star will play their esoteric stuff. Kagel got lucky. He ran into the French pianist Alexandre Tharaud, a Chopin specialist who is not afraid of novelty or things go bump on the floor. Among other delights on this thrillingly wacky album is a work for metronome and piano and another, perversely, for three hands. I would have given the album five stars for the pleasure it has give me, but for a sudden anxiety that men in white coats might come to drag me away for liking such forbidden stuff.

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3 underplayed symphonies



Allan Pettersson’s 6th
(BIS)
****

A Swedish outcast, living on the poverty line, Pettersson is the most original Nordic symphonist after Sibelius and Nielsen. Here, as is his wont, he starts in darkness and feels his way, an unbroken hour later, to light. Few modern symphonists create or sustain so gripping an atmosphere, and Christian Lindberg’s performance with the Norrköping Symphony is by far the best on record. I have listened to it, end to end, five times.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com







Witold Lutoslawski’s 2nd
(Chandos)
***

Trapped between Communist expectation and his own modernist inclinations, Lutoslawski walked a high wire in the nervous Sixties. His two-movement 2nd symphony is so jittery at times that he called the first section ‘hésitant’. It isn’t: Edward Garder conducts a commanding performance with the BBC Philharmonic. Luto’s cello cocerto, written for Rostropovich is, if anything, bleaker. Paul Watkins is the austere soloist.

>Buy this CD at MDT







Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s 19th
(Naxos)
**

By 1985, the prolific Russian had reached his 142nd work and was repeating himself. There are some glorious passages in the 19th, many reminiscent of his friend Shotaskovich, and blazingly performed by the St Petersburg State Symphony, conductor Vladimir Lande. But the intensity does not equal that of Weinberg’s Mahlerian 14th.

>Buy this CD at Naxos






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December 16, 2012

Frans Bak: The Killing
(Decca)
****

For all the newspaper blether about an actress in a sweater and the irresistible charm of grey Danish dawn, vital elements in the compelling TV thriller have passed almost unnoticed – as if they were clues missed by detective Sarah Lund as she waves her torch down another dark tunnel. We’re talking music here.

The soundtrack of The Killing was composed by Frans Bak, a conservatory-trained musician who used to be a bandleader on Danish television and later wrote lots of product commercials before settling for the long-form movie score. Bak works alone at an electronic desk, mixing sounds of his own invention. The only other musician credited on this soundtrack album is a hypnotic, low-voiced Swedish singer, Josefine Cronholm.

For the opening titles, Bak creates a Ligeti-like Atmosphères underpinned by a percussive throb that might have come from the young Steve Reich and a brooding orchestral surge with roots in mid-Sibelius. The resultant fusion, however, finds a distinctive signature which, in turn, becomes indistinguishable from the gripping, questing ambience of the unfolding story. A complex rhythm, unremitting throughout, is a key structural element in the series.

The soundtrack called to my mind Bernard Herrmann’s music for Alfred Hitchcock, two seconds of which suffice to evoke a screen situation. I was pleased to read online (the album has no sleeve notes) that Bak regards Herrmann as a role model. That’s encouraging at a time when film is losing its musical literacy and it augurs well for the future of Danish drama. Listen to any track on this chilling disc and you’ll be lost in the murk of a plot, as indelible as the graveyard scene in Hamlet.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com





Three past legends



Ataulfo Argenta
(ICA)
****

The Spanish conductor was soaring high on 1950s Decca when a domestic accident caused his death at 44. This account of Beethoven’s Eroica and Smetana’s Bartered Bride overture exemplify his electrifying effect on familiar music, even with second and third rank orchestras.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com







Clara Haskil
(Praga)
****

Far from the heart of her repertoire, the Rumanian pianist skips and shimmies through Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain, in a Paris performance conducted by Igor Markevitch.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com







Sviatoslav Richter
(ICA)
****

He cancelled more often than he played, and every date he kept lives on forever. This is a June 1975 Beethoven night at the Royal Festival Hall, two sonatas separated by a pack of Bagatelles. Richter, once he grips the attention with the opening bars, never lets go. But for an idiot yelling ‘bravo’ before the last chord fades, this record would be perfection itself.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com






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December 10, 2012

Lebrecht’s Album of the Year

Debussy: Clair De Lune
(Virgin Classics)

2012 was a bumper year – a bumper-to-bumper year – for vocal recitals. Most were fashioned along 1950s lines: pick six show-stoppers and pad them out with six more you hope the average listener (whoever that is) has never heard before. By September, I was having to pay the dustmen to cart them away. Apparently, unwanted CDs are used to pave new motorways. Next time you take a drive, count the singers beneath your wheels. And bumpers.

On happier days, I was grateful to receive the complete piano music of John Cage on 18CDs, played by Stefan Schleiermacher on MDG, followed by the complete Arnold Schoenberg piano works on just one CD. Why did no-one think of that before? The set is on a new designer label, Odradek. The pianist is Pina Napolitano: you will hear more of her.

I had more fun that was decent with Sony’s exhumations of the Glenn Gould sessions with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, a record made in hell. And I was hugely beguiled by Hyperion’s 18th century Portuguese love songs. On that same label, Natalie Clein played the best Bloch Shelomo on record – yes, it was a bumper year, after all. And then along came Nicola Benedetti’s Silver Violin on Decca, an altogether original confection of movie-linked music and the ultimate antidote to formula releases.

But when all’s done and dusted and the frost is thick underfoot, one album of 2012 stood out half a mile from the pile.

Not much was heard this year from Natalie Dessay. The French soprano-actress had a run of opera cancellations and suffered the death of her manager, Herbert Breslin. In the early spring, she issued on Virgin Classics a recital of Debussy songs that I do not expect ever to hear bettered.

Everything about this album is five-star: the pianist, Philippe Collard; the sound quality; the order of songs; and the tinted cover that takes us straight to the heart of Debussy’s world, where Ms Dessay weaves a spell of unremitting fascination. Some find Debussy intimidating and cold. In Ms Dessay’s interpretation, at once clinical and passionate, his immaculate little songs have the grip of a couturier’s window on the Champs Elysées. You are rooted to the spot.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com<






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December 3, 2012

Voyages-Reisen: music for viola da gamba
(Ty art)
****

My friends who produce and present breakfast programmes on classical radio in different countrties share a common dilemma. Play anything too fast or loud, like the march of the Toreadors from Carmen, and the sleep-fuddled audience will switch to talk radio. Play slow and too soft – Barber’s Adagio – and they’ll fall back asleep. So breakfast radio ends up with reams of unnamed Haydn symphonies interspersed with middle-of-road classics by also-ran French composers of the 19th century, a murky start to a dull day.

Well, here’s a remedy for breakfast. The viola da gamba is an ancestor of the modern cello, only with six strings instead of four. Its resonance stirs remote connections. Played by the Austrian virtuoso Jakob David Rattinger, it offers both gentle awakening and enough of a brain charge to make you explore both sides of the French-German border in the age just before enlightenment. Rattinger, who broke onto record with a stunning survey of the 17th Frenchman Marin Marais (featured in the film Tous les Matins du Monde), takes pieces of Telemann, J. S Bach and Carl Friedrich Abel from the German side and matches them with the lesser-known Forqueray, d’Hervelois and and Demachy.

The accents are varied, but the compelling voice is that of the instrument, evoking a civilisation we can barely imagine in sounds that make us want to get up and grab the day. Rattinger’s narrative playing could hardly be bettered, and the ever compelling Marais closes the album with a riveting Badinage.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.co.uk





Three Schubert CDs



Complete symphonies
(Naïve)
**

Mark Minkowski’s early-instrument box with Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble feels organic in brown-rice ways that some may find deterrent. The tempi are very bright, but there’s always a faint asperity to the string tone that feels more hair-shirty than necessary. The numbering is also odd, adhering to an academic correctness that makes the Great C major symphony 8th rather than 9th in the sequence.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.co.uk







4th and 5th symphonies
(Hänssler)
****

Faster than Minkowski but on the modern instruments of the SWR Stuttgart orchestra, Roger Norrington puts Schubert back where he belongs – on the dance floor. Quick or slow, every rhythm is strictly on the spot and irresistibly infectious. You may not be able to sit through this without taking a twirl.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com







C-major quintet
(Hyperion)
****

The quartet with an extra cello has a star-strewn recorded history, but it has been a while since a performance as gutsy as this has come along, The Takacs Quartet, augmented by Ralph Kirschbaum, tackle the ambiguities of the late masterpiece with rare clarity and profound sympathy.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com






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November 26, 2012

Fazil Say: Istanbul Symphony
(naïve)
**

Turkey’s most charismatic classical musician is in trouble back home. An atheist, uncomfortable with rising Islamist tides, Say retweeted a derisory comment last year and found himself prosecuted for ‘insulting the values of Moslems’ – accused, in effect, of the medieval crime of heresy. His case will be tried in February. Say has gone into exile.

A prolific pianist, widely recorded, Say is also an ambitious composer, rooted in the sounds and sights of his homeland. His symphony opens with a rush of waves, followed by a run of Mediterranean melismas. The movements are titled ‘nostalgia’, religious order’, ‘blue mosque, ‘merrily clad young ladies aboard the ferry to Princes Islands’, and so on.

To the post-modern listener, this may appears to be a leisurely travelogue in the manner of Saint-Saens and Elgar, east meets west in a four-star hotel. The energy is powerful and the noise made by the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra very loud, but the music arrives about 120 years too late, a cultural anachronism. Others, less aware of musical trends, may be charmed.

Less contentious is Herzafen, a concerto for ney (a kind of flute) and symphony orchestra. The throaty instrument adds a whispering authenticity and Burcu Karadag, the soloist, exerts a hypnotic attention. A German audience at the world premiere sound hugely enthusiastic. I wanted to hear it again, at once.

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3 underplayed symphonies



Allan Pettersson’s 6th
(BIS)
****

A Swedish outcast, living on the poverty line, Pettersson is the most original Nordic symphonist after Sibelius and Nielsen. Here, he starts in darkness and feels his way, an unbroken hour later, to light. Few modern symphonists create or sustain so gripping an atmosphere, and Christian Lindberg’s performance with the Norrköping Symphony is by far the best on record. I have listened to it, end to end, five times.

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Witold Lutoslawski’s 2nd
(Chandos)
***

Trapped between Communist expectation and his own modernist inclinations, Lutoslawski walked a high wire in the nervous Sixties. His two-movement 2nd symphony is so jittery that he called the first section ‘hésitant’. It isn’t: Edward Garder conducts a commanding performance with the BBC Philharmonic. Luto’s cello concerto, written for Mstislav Rostropovich is, if anything, bleaker. Paul Watkins is the austere soloist.

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Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s 19th
(Naxos)
**

By 1985, when he wrote this symphony, the prolific Russian had reached his 142nd work and was repeating himself. There are some glorious passages in the 19th, many reminiscent of his friend Shotaskovich, and blazingly performed by the St Petersburg State Symphony, conductor Vladimir Lande. But the intensity does not match Weinberg’s Mahlerian 14th.

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November 18, 2012

The Irish Piano
(RTE LyricFM)
***

Not many Dubliners know, and very few Muscovites will admit, that it was an itinerant Irishman who first put Russia on the world’s musical map. John Field landed in St Petersburg in the winter of 1902 and, over the next 35 years, served as a role model to rising musicians and as a roving ambassador of Russian culture. Mikhail Glinka, the cornerstone Russian composer, was briefly his pupil. Frederic Chopin, it is said, stole one of Field's devices - the nocturne.

‘The Irish Piano’ is a scintillating and sometimes whimsical recital that takes John Field as its starting point and spreads out across the whole of the island’s music, from bar songs, through a Samuel Barber tribute to the breezy post-tonalities of the present generation. Michael McHale, in St Peter’s Church of Ireland, Drogheda, strikes just the right tone of contemplative wonderment and mischievous mythology.

Starting with a traditional air of his own transcription, McHale introduces John Field both through a pair of his own nocturnes and through two-little-known homages by the American Samuel Barber and the expatriate Irishman Arnold Bax, who went on to serve the English Crown as Master of the Queen’s Musick. In amidst the classical verities, there are short new pieces by the captivating Donnacha Dennehy, the challenging Ian Wilson and other young Irish composers who have lately been taking the world stage in disproportionate numbers. Ireland has mysteriously become a crucible of contemporary music. Fascinating from start to stop, this album has lovely stuff that you won’t hear anywhere else.

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Three mezzo CDs



Susan Graham: Virgins, Vixens and Viragos
(Onyx)
***

An unusually thoughtful star recital, running the gamut from Purcell to Sondheim and taking in such unfamiliar gems as Joseph Horovitz’s Lady Macbeth and Vernon Duke’s Ages Ago (if you can’t place Duke, he was Prokofiev’s best friend). Malcolm Martineau accompanies and the big vibrato is kept well in check. The virago, on the other hand, runs riot.

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Joyce DiDonato: Drama Queens
(Virgin)
****

The queens are from baroque and early-classical operas, many of them obscure (Berenice, Queen of Palestine, anyone?), which allows Joyce to let rip with more decorations than an oligarch’s bathroom and more freedom than the US Constitution. Alan Curtis conducts Il Complesso Barocco with commendable discretion. If it feels a bit overwhelming, skip to track six for Handel’s chilling Cleopatra. The singing is in a class – a world – of its own.

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Marie-Nicole Lemieux: Opera arias
(Naïve)
***

Ms Lemieux, a Canadian, is a contralto - a deeper, richer, more swoony type of voice than the general run of mezzos. She is good in Haydn and Mozart, gorgeous as Gluck’s Orfeo. Bernard Labadie conducts les violins du roy.

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`



November 4, 2012

18th century Portuguese love songs
(Hyperion)
****

Sharp-eyed readers will have noted that the last Lebrecht CD of the Week shot straight to the top of the UK charts. This week’s is designed for a more intimate purpose.

Described by an 18th century English traveller as ‘the most seducing, the most voluptuous imaginable,’ the music of the Portuguese ruling classes appeared to cross all mortal barriers. It is, wrote William Beckford, ‘the best calculated to throw saints off their guard and inspire profane deliriums’. Do not say you have not been warned.

It offers two points of musical reference. The first is courtly Europe in the last years before the French Revolution. Some of the melodies could be passed off for very young Haydn or Rossini. Italian influence is pervasive and a sonata by Domenico Scarlatti, who lived in Lisbon for ten years, does not feel at all out of place.

But beneath the delicate bobs and bows surge the powerful motives of love and betrayal that one hears in modern Portuguese fado – the eternal yearning for love, allied to a weary recognition that it must fail. This expression of love’s futility is not cynical, as it might be in other cultures. On the contrary, love emerges all the stronger for its black-eyed realism.

The diversity of the music holds your attention from start to finish, whether it is a soprano serenade with guitar-led ensemble or a lonely harpsichord plucking away in the noonday sun. Impatient listeners should skip to the second track, where they will be assaulted by duet virtuosity of a feline, Rossinian felicity. Sandra Medeiros and Joana Seara are the stunning sopranos; Zak Ozmo directs L’Avventura London. This, wrote Beckford, is ‘an original sort of music, different from any I ever heard’. Two centuries later, that estimate still holds true.

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Three opera CD sets



Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier
(DG)
***

The American soprano Renee Fleming and the German conductor Christian Thielemann are unassailable in this sweetmeat opera. Franz Hawlata is the bullish Ochs, Diana Damrau the silky Sophie. My only cavil is the playing of the Munich Philharmonic at the Baden-Baden Festival, fifty calories less sweet than the Viennese.

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Mozart: Don Giovanni
(DG)
***

Ildebrando D’Arcangelo is the rampaging Don, Rolando Villazon the Ottavio, Diana Damrau and Joyce DiDonato the two Donnas in another Baden-Baden production. Much of the singing is thrilling (DiDonati with added chill). The Mahler Chamber Orchestra offer slightly sterile accompaniment under the baton of Yannick Nézet-Séguin. It may have worked better on stage than on record.

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Smetana: The Bartered Bride
(Harmonia Mundi)
****

One of Mahler’s favourite operas has lost its foothold in the regular repertoire, perhaps due to its bucolic naivety. Jiri Behlolavek conducts an all-Czech cast – Dana Buresova outstanding as Marenka – in a London concert performance at the Barbican with the BBC orchestra and chorus. The sound is rather dry, but the enthusiasm is infectious. You’ll be whistling it for weeks.

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October 14, 2012

Anu Komsi, Coloratura
(Bis)
****

Vanity apart, there are only two credible reasons for releasing or reviewing a solo vocal recital. Either the music must be unfamiliar and powerful, or the singer must be possessed of a voice so extraordinary that there is no better way of appreciating it than in this concentrated form. Anu Komsi’s recital fits both bills.

Komsi is a Finnish artist who plays roles no other soprano can reach, manily because they are way out of their league – too high, too complex, too dangerous. She’s had roles written for her in operas by George Benjamin, James Dillon and Peter Eotvos and she has a summer festival on the west coast of Finland that regularly cuts the edge. She is conducted here (with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra) by her husband, Sakari Oramo, chief conductor of the Stockholm Philharmonic and the BBC Symphony.

The opening track, a wordless concerto for coloratura and orchestra by the half-forgotten Russian Reinhold Glière (1875-1956), s a guaranteed window-breaker – high, loud and a perfectly lovely assault on the senses. It is followed by the mad scene from Ambroise Thomas’s opera Hamlet and the outworn Bell Song from Delibes’s Lakmé, once dragged through an airport in a British Airways ad yet here sounding rejuvenated.

I could have done without the Queen of the Night aria from Magic Flute, written for Mozart’s sister-in-law; nobody ever saves their best work for the in-laws. It does nothing to prepare your ears for the exhilarating wackiness of John Zorn’s 11-minute monodrama, La Machine de l’etre, a track that puts Komsi in the Cathy Berberian bracket of versatility. She closes, serenely on home turf, with Sibelius’s Luonnotar. The disc is more than the sum of its parts. It presents a unique artist, uniquely in her element. Of how many records can you say that?

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3 violin concerto CDs



Berg, Brahms
(Virgin)
****

Renaud Capucon’s account of the sombre Berg concerto, written in memory of a dead teenager, goes straight to the top of the pile. Making no concession for atonal asperities, it treats the work for what it is – a romantic concept in a modern form. The Brahms is sweetly done, if less decisive. Daniel Harding conducts the Vienna Philharmonic.

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Schumann
(Hyperion)
**

Schumann wrote a violin concerto his friend Joseph Joachim that went missing for 80 years. It lacks the warmth and conviction of his cello concerto and Anthony Marwood’s austere interpretation adds little to its charms. Nor is the violin adaptation of the cello concerto, played here by Marwood with equal severity, a match for the lush original.

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Mendelssohn
(Hyperion)
***

Alina Ibragimova is fast, lean and edgy in the famous E minor concerto, pitched against the organic timbre of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. A refreshing change from over-sweet accounts, it will not be to everyone’s taste. In the earlier, less-played D minor concerto, the orchestra sounds idiomatically more comfortable and the soloist is scarcely challenged.

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October 7, 2012

Miklos Rozsa: violin concerto, &c.
(Chandos)
****

A Hungarian, penniless in 1930s Paris, Rozsa took a tip from the Swiss composer Arthur Honegger to try his hand at film. He called his compatriot Alexander Korda, who had a studio outside London and got started composing a routine epic, Knight Without Armour.

When war broke out in 1939 Korda moved The Thief of Baghdad to Hollywood and took Rozsa along to finish the score. It was the composer’s gateway to heaven. Over the next four decades, Rosza scored 90 movies, including Spellbound, Ben Hur and Julius Caesar. With Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Franz Waxman, he defined the orchestral language of film.

Like Korngold, however, he craved respectability and continued to write concert works, often reusing themes from his movies. Like Korngold, he composed a concerto for Jascha Heifetz that the great violinist adored and the critics uniformly deplored. Both are fine works, expertly wrought and easy on the ear. But while the Korngold concerto has soared with half a dozen recordings over the past couple of years, Rozsa’s has remained obscure. It is an original work, untouched by Hollywood (though Billy Wilder later asked Rozsa to work it into the soundtrack of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes).

This new interpretation by the young British violinist Jennifer Pike is the most apeealing I have heard since Heifetz. Pike is terrific with the opening movement fireworks and tender in the gorgeous Lento movement. The furious Hungarian rhythms of the finale belong to Bartok, whom Rozsa knew well. At times, the concerto feels like the work of an equal master

Rumon Gamba conducts the BBC Philharmonic in exemplary Chandos sound. The filler pieces are Rozsa’s neo-classical Concerto for string orchestra and an earthier Theme, Variations and Finale. Enjoyable stuff, can’t think why it doesn’t get played more.

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Symphonic CDs



Scriabin: Symphonic works
(Melodiya)
****

The Russian composer has fallen so far out of fashion that to hear his music is like revisiting the old Soviet Union. These 1960s recordings, conducted by Evgeny Svetlanov, are vividly atmospheric, expertly played, in pellucid sound – an almost-guilty pleasure.

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Tchaikovsky: symphonies 1-3
(LSO Live)
****

Once you suspend scepticism at the naivety, there is much pleasure to be had in Tchaik’s Winter Daydreams and the Little Russian and Polish symphonies. The LSO are on cracking form, with shimmering woodwind solos shaped by Valery Gergiev’s flutter fingers and some sumptuous ppps. This may be the most tempting interpretation since Karajan’s blue-box set of the 1970s… now, there’s a vanished world.

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Rachmaninov 2nd
(ICA Classics/EM)
***/****

The big romantic surges at the start of the first and third movements need taut baton control. Evgeny Svetlanov is exemplary with the Philharmonia in a live 1993 recording. Vasily Petrenko is a little more relaxed with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic but the outcome, far from indulgent, is more likeable. The big clarinet solo on both CDs is sensational. Try both.ebay

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October 1, 2012

Glenn Gould: The Schwarzkopf Tapes
(Sony)
****

This is the kind of worst-ever record that producers dream up drunk and forget by morning. Except, in this case, they decided to make it.

Putting the perfectionist German soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in a studio with the outwardly chaotic Canadian pianist Glenn Gould was a mismatch of Olympian dimensions. All they had in common was a passion for the songs of Richard Strauss, regarded in the mid-1960s as a romantic dinosaur. Gould considered him a genius; Schwarzkopf had known the composer quite well. Beyond that, the pair were chalk and cheese.

Schwarzkopf, recalls producer Paul Myers in a booklet note, thought she was getting an expert accompanist to her exquisite voice. Gould thought he was the centre of attention. The soprano turned up in a New York studio in January 1966 with her control-freak husband, Walter Legge. Gould like his studio stifling hot. Schwarzkopf said heat killed her voice.

The pianist refused to discuss tempi and interpretation before they got to work. At breaks, he showed no interest in shared listening of the recorded takes. While Schwarzkopf and Legge frowned over replays behind the glass wall, Gould carried on playing the piano. Schwarzkopf stuck to the printed score. Gould went off on riffs. The third day of sessions was cancelled by mutual consent.

Fourteen years later, three songs were released in a Gould jubilee album. Three more were considered unpublishable. They are issued here for the first time. Worth hearing? Indispensably so. The strain on Schwarzkopf’s glittering instrument is audible at both top and bottom, but the faint patina harshness endows her voice with endearing warmth. Gould’s opening passages – especially in the torch-song Morgen – are straight out of dreamland, a set of fantasies on a near-imaginary Strauss that smash the glass windows of literalist protectionism. In the closing lines Schwarzkopf can barely be recognised as herself, extended as never before by a creative competitot.

In between the two triptychs of songs, Sony have packed Gould’s Toronto performance of Strauss’s concerto-like Burleske, together with a 15-minute Gould rehearsal in which he growls along to his playing, finishing up with the comment: ‘OK, not bad. But not good.’ Utterly inimitable.

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September 24, 2012

Mendelssohn: Elijah
(Signum)
****

From its first performance in Birmingham Town Hall in August 1846 and for many decades after, Mendelssohn’s Elijah was considered the equal of Handel’s Messiah - certainly the most significant and spiritual work of music composed in England since time immemorial. Its grip on the public ear faded as world wars turned Sunday churchgoers into disillusioned sceptics. Over time, it has receded to an occasional performance.

The flaw in Elijah is that is lacks the innate optimism and the massive singalong appeal of Handel’s masterpiece. The atmosphere is dark, and sometimes heavy. Mendelssohn in his set pieces for four voices, chorus and orchestra can sound as if he is straining to hard to please God, man and good Queen Victora all at the same time. So sensitive was the composer to the sensibilities of his prudish audience that he completely excised the massacre of the priests of Baal, which was the apotheosis of the prophet Elijah’s revelation and redemption. This oratorio needs more blood and guts.

In a far-from-crowded field, Paul McCreesh’s recording, made at the Watford Colosseum and Birmingham Town Hall, does the crowd scenes extremely well. The soloists are a power-pack – Rosemary Joshua, Sarah Connolly, Robert Murray and Simon Keenlyside – the Gabrieli Consort play with vim and vigour. The sundry choirs deserve full credit: the Wroclaw Philharmonic Choir, Chetham’s Chamber Choir, North East Youth Chorale, Taplow Youth Choir and Ulster Youth Chamber Choir. The only drawback is the shelf-consuming thickness of the accompanying book, which is studded with pointless photos from the recording sessions (who needs to see a horn player with his eyes popping out?). Nicholas Parker’s sound production is exemplary.

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3 concerto CDs



Benjamin Grosvenor
(Decca)
***

The 2nd Saint-Saens concerto, the Ravel G-major and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, performed by the young English pianist in descending order of effectiveness. The Saint-Saens is the most eloquent I’ve heard in years, the Ravel is very good and the Gershwin would benefit from a richer cultural perspective. Short solos between the pieces are nonchalantly tossed off by a young artists who has technique to spare. James Judd conducts the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, who sound in great form.

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Mitsuko Uchida
(Decca)
**

Conducting the Cleveland Orchestra from the keyboard in two Mozart concertos (K271, K467), the great pianist does not sound wholly comfortable. Orchestral tutti are a little heavy and the pianism lack the flinty certainty of Uchida at her finest. Try Geza Anda and the Mozarteum orchestra in the 'Elvira Madigan' concerto on DG and you'll glimpse what can be achieved when a pianist and ensemble speak with one voice.

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Leif Ove Andsnes
(Sony)
****

The Norwegian manages the double role of pianist and director persuasively with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. The first release in this cycle pairs Beethoven’s 1st and 3rd concertos. The less challenging C major concerto receives an affectionate reading, while the C minor achieves high tension and revolutionary fervour of a very rare order, before going off on a dancing riff. Andsnes seldom does what you expect and the sound, in Prague’s Rudolfinum, is exemplary (the producer is the EMI veteran John Fraser).

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September 17, 2012

Jon Lord : Concerto for group and orchestra
(Ear Music)
****

So many fading pop stars have sought to revive faltering careers in the classical sector that the term ‘crossover’ has become synonymous with sell-out. Jon Lord was never that.

The Deep Purple founder was classically trained and passionate about keyboard instruments. He blended a Hammond organ into the band’s trademark sound and, unusually for his time, focussed more on live concerts than on recording.

The first performance of his classic-rock fusion concerto was conducted by Malcolm Arnold, one of England’s most successful symphonists, and the influence of Arnold’s effortless tune-making is audible intermittently through the three movements of this remarkable work.

Lord played the concerto more than 30 times with different orchestras and conductors before deciding to make a studio recording with Paul Mann, who had directed the work on tour. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic was engaged for the sessions along with some hardcore rock band members. In the last weeks of his life (he died of pancreatic cancer in July), the composer was able to supervise and approve the final takes.

So what kind of work is the concerto? It’s a classically structured work with flashes of very loud rock playing and two stretches of ballad singing that, while agreeable, disrupt the cogent flow of instrumental conversation. The Hammond organ adds a unique nasal undertow and the propulsion of rhythm and ideas never flags. This is probably a work best heard where it was first played – in the Royal Albert Hall, London – but the recording is a precious relic of a time when music knew no barriers and the future held an infinity of hope.

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3 Mahler CDs



1st symphony
(Naxos)
*

The pulse in this performance by Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony is inconsistent from one movement to the next. Irony is crucially missing from the third movement. The live sound (Tim Handley) is rich and transparent and the orchestra is on great form, but the interpretation is unconvincing.

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1st symphony
(Oehms)
**

Cologne’s Gurzenich orchestra learned to play Mahler with the composer himself. Its sound has an unassuming authenticity and the narrative is confidently driven by Markus Stenz, a little too fast at times and without a trace of the underlying ironic contradictions. The brass playing, though, is supersonic.

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2nd symphony
(DG)
***

Myung-Whun Chung’s tempi are exemplary and the Seoul Philharmonic playing is ferocious, yet note-perfect. Doubts nag in the low strings of the andante and the Röschen soloist, Myung Joo Lee, wallows in her own vibrato. But the interpretative line remains tight throughout and four Korean choruses deliver a mighty resurrection.

>Buy this CD at Deutsche Grammophon









September 10, 2012

Stephen Hough: French Album
(Hyperion)
****

The English pianist is so much a law unto himself that if he decides a piece is French we must take his word for it. Only Hough would dare to kick off a so-called French Album with two pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach and end it with one by Franz Liszt. How French is that?

The justifications, if such things are needed, are that the Bach solos he plays are arrangements by the austerely Gallic Alfred Cortot and the Liszt is a compilation of themes from Halévy’s La Juive, arguably the cornerstone of romantic French opera.

In between, Hough strings a sterling-silver chain of jewelled morsels by Fauré, Ravel, Massenet, Chabrier, Poulenc, Debussy, Delibes and Cécile Chaminade. Mostly, such pieces send me back to sleep when played as fillers on BBC Radio 3’s Breakfast programme. The Faurés, I’m sure, Hough can play in his sleep. Here, however, he presents each amuse-bouche as a banquet in itself – integral, entire and altogether satisfying until the ear remembers that it is empty and demands more. There is never a risk of torpor on this CD.

In the thick of exquisite tidbits sits a four-minute masterpiece of commanding solemnity – a prelude by Charles-Valentin Alkan that stops time in its tracks and makes you wonder how anyone, anywhere, could compose music in any other form. Alkan was a recluse, found dead in his Paris apartment beneath a collapsed bookcase, his parrot still chirping. His works demand formidable hands and his advocates have been few: Busoni, Edwin Fischer, Ronald Smith, Olli Mustonen, Marc-Andre Hamelin. Hough, in La chanson de la folle au bord de la mer announces a new contender in the Alkan championships, a striking intelligence applied to the most intellectually challenging of 19th century keyboard masters.

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Three contemporary CDs



Michael Shapiro: Variation
(Paumanok)
****

The New York composer has written two sets on Jewish Sabbath hymns, one for solo cello (Sato Knudsen), the other violin (Tim Fain). Both marry lyricism to the mathematical logic of the variation form – and do so with charm, boldness and a winsome wit.

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Lowell Liebermann: Little Heaven
(Albany)
***

Another New Yorker, Liebermann pulls off the considerable feat of setting the Holocaust poet Nelly Sachs without maudlin modes, his notes as sparing as her words. Brenda Rae is the soprano. Rae is joined by baritone John Hancock, with William Hobbs at the piano, in two further cycles. Tough, original writing – just as I like it.

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A Different World - Contemporary Music for Solo Violin & Piano
(Champs Hill)
***

Baltic composers (Barkauskas, Salonen, Bacewicz) and some others are plinked and played on violin and piano by Diana Galvydyte and Christopher Guild. Some may find it a tad wintry, but Balsys’s evocative Lament and James MacMillan’s two pieces are well worth the admission price.

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September 3, 2012

Bononcini: Messa, Stabat Mater
(Naïve)
****

The cover of this CD had me quivering with righteous outrage. Bononcini is one of the bad boys of music history. He came to London around 1720, stole Handel’s aristocratic patrons and half his audience and left him at the very edge of bankruptcy.

Like Salieri with Mozart, Bononcini did enough to drive a great composer to drink and distraction without leaving works of his own that might justify his intrigues. Like Salieri, Boncini earned prolonged and richly deserved oblivion. I have never knowingly listened to a note of his music, the rotter.

That, however, was Giovanni Battista Bononcini.(1670-1747). This present disc contains two liturgical works by his kid brother, Antonio (1677-1726), a Modena cellist who became Kapellmeister in Vienna in 1726. The music is very much of its time and type, soothing and reassuring rather than strikingly original, but many of the eight soloists’ vocal lines are beautifully turned and the cohesion that director Rinaldo Alessandrini achieve with the Concerto Italiano choir and orchestra is altogether impeccable.

Recorded live at Vienna’s adventurous Konzerthaus, the music is seductive beyond all reasonable expectations. Silvia Frigato and Sara Mingardo are the standout soloists and the acoustic is near-perfect. When someone mentions Bononcini in future you’re going to have to ask, which one?

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical





Three John Cage centenary CDs



As It is
(ECM New Series)
*****

Just when you think you know Cage, he springs a new surprise. The pianist Alexei Lubimov and singer Natalia Pschetnikova, veterans of a 1988 Moscow Cage-in, perform pieces for prepared piano and poems by e. e. cumming, Gertrude Stein and James Joyce. Stunning, simply stunning.

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Jack Quartet
(Wigmore Hall Live)
***

The quartet of 1950 is not Cage’s finest half-hour and can, indeed, often seem a good deal longer. Written in quiet repetitions that anticipate the minimalism of the 1980s, the piece is chiefly of historic interest. That said, the Jack Quartet give it a taut, alert reading, between works of Ligeti, Pintscher and Xenakis.

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Sonatas and Interludes
(HatNowArt)
****

‘A ping qualified by a thud’ is how the conservative composer Virgil Thomson described these 20 pieces, but what did he know? Played here by James Tenney, who said they changed his life at age 16, they might well change your perceptions of the sounds it is possible to extract from a piano, prepared or otherwise. Almost definitive.

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August 27, 2012

The art of instrumentation: homage to Glenn Gould
(Nonesuch)
****

Glenn Gould, who died in October 1982, would have been 80 next month. Alive, Gould was known as the quirky Canadian pianist who soaked his hands in boiling water before he touched the keys, and who played Bach as no-one else before or since. Since his death, frozen in time, he has acquired an aura of philosopher and saint, extolled for his gentleness and intellectual rigour, raised to cult status on record. ‘They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old…’

To perpetuate an artist’s legacy in a double-anniversary year requires more than repetitive homage, as record labels have learned to their cost. Gidon Kremer, the Latvian violinist and conductor, once spent a night in Gould’s studio with the Hungarian pianist Andras Schiff. He has commissioned a set of variations on Bach themes by contemporary composers whom Gould might, or might not, have liked.

I am fairly sure Gould would have grinned at Alexander Raskatov’s string orchestra riff on the Prelude and Fugue in D minor, and there’s a pair of arrangements for solo violin and vibraphone that cut right to the heart of the Gould sound world. A piece called Bridges to Bach by the Georgian composer Giya Kancheli is the standout track. Its shimmering lines for violin, flute, oboe, piano and vibraphone against a string orchestra backdrop afford a meditative tour around the possibilities that Bach presents for the creative mind, a boundless resource for invention.

The safer tracks on this CD are less successful. The most daring is a cross between five of Bach’s Goldberg Variations and two intermezzos from the works of Arnold Schoenberg, set by Steven Kovacs Tickmayer and giving the listener a constant expectation of challenge – just as Gould used to do. Rarely does a recording extend musical curiosity as much as this one does.

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Three Tchaikovsky CDs



Piano concerto #1
(Marrinsky Live)
***

The Tchaikovsky Competition winner Daniil Trifonov makes light work of the great concerto, accompanied by Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra. Massive power gives way to the most delicate pianissimi and a constant sense of discovery. This performance is close to epic, diminished only by the solo encores – mostly Liszt settings of Schubert songs that somehow disempower the concerto’s impact.

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Symphonies 4&5
(LPO Live)
**

The London Philharmonic is not, on present form, London’s pride. The woodwinds lack colour, the strings are mushy and the brass less forceful than it used to be. These are live recordings from the Royal Festival Hall, a smudgy venue, but the band should know the hall well enough to overcome its blight. Vladimir Jurowski conducts.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical







6th symphony
(DG)
***

The Seoul Philharmonic has risen under Myung-Whun Chung’s direction to world status and sounds ever better each year. Produced by Michael Fine, a former head of DG, this recording has bloom to die for and real depth of field in the aural illusion. Chung’s interpretation is classy and unfussy, carefully restraining pathos in the finale. The filler, Rachmaninov’s Vocalise, detracts more than it adds.

>Buy this CD at Deutsche Grammophon









August 19, 2012

Nicola Benedetti: The Silver Violin
(Decca)
****

The violin world is short of big beasts and big ideas at its summit. A handful of well-known soloists play the same old programmes ad infinitum and the new bloods are pressured by their agents to do much the same. So when one of the up-and-coming brood does something different, there is cause for applause.

Nicola Benedetti won BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2004 at the age of 16 and was awarded a £1 million Universal contract for six recordings. It has taken a while for her playing to catch up with the hype, but recent concerts have been impressive and her new album is a considerable cut above anything she has done before.

The Silver Violin presents music from and much it is shameless shmaltz, as you would expect. The surprise is that the selection is so intelligent and the running order so astute that the album acquires a personality far greater than its content.

The central piece is the Korngold concerto in a finely judged performance, not perhaps as passionate as Capucon, Trusler and some other recent releases, but framed between two Korngold arias from Die tote Stadt, it gains a context in the composer’s pre-Hollywood life and an interpretation that is aptly rounded.

The inescapable Schindler’s List theme by John Williams is deftly balanced by two laconic movie episodes from Dmitri Shostakovich. A student piano quartet by Gustav Mahler is included as the soundtrack to Shutter Island, while Howard Shore’s Concertino from Eastern Promises sounds even more exotic than it does on screen.

Orchestral accompaniment is by the Bournemouth SO with Kirill Karabits and the sound (by K&A Productions) falls some way short of Decca’s best standards. What stands out here is the style and the sophistication of the soloist, along with the promise of more intriguing projects to come.

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August 5, 2012

Clifford Curzon: the complete recordings
(Decca)
****

Out of the London Blitz emerged two pianists of unusual sensitivity. Solomon, known by his first name alone, was possessed of powerful qualities of introspection. His playing was ended by a stroke in 1956, when he was 54 years old, and he is remembered by usurpassed recordings of the Grieg and Schumann concertos.

Clifford Curzon, five years younger, wore a bespectacled, clerkish look that belied astonishing keyboard passion. Like Solomon, he is remembered for cornerstone recordings of the Grieg, but also of much else. Curzon was Decca’s number-one go-to pianist. A favourite of the irascible George Szell, he worked with maestros great and small, though his finest hours may well have been spent in chamber music.

Among 24 discs in this bumper compilation, concertos abound. There are two releases each of the Grieg and the Beethoven Emperor and three of the Brahms D minor – each different in its magisterial way. The deeper you dig, the bigger the surprises. There’s a stunning account of the second concerto by Alan Raswthorne, paired with Falla, Litolff and Franck, as well as a totally unexpected piano obbligato on the third symphony of the Dutch composer Willem Pijper, conducted by Eduard van Beinum.

Among the chamber music, a studio session with Vienna Philharmonic players on the Franck and Dvorak quintets is a delight from start to close, as are the two Mozart piano quartets that Curzon played with members of the Amadeus. His solo Schubert is in an ethereal space of its own. The box, a perfect browser, is a testament to an eternal artist and a test of the listener’s aptitude for the filigree distinctions of fine pianism.

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Three French CD sets



Jean Francaix: musique de chamber
(Indésens)
***

It’s the birth centenary of an archetype French composer, but the reassessment yields no fresh results. In these performances by Francaix and friends, what emerges is a beautiful civility and some delicious wind sounds, but nothing to frighten the horses. Octets, nonets, any combination of woodwinds and strings, lovely and ephemeral.

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Debussy: chamber music with wind instruments
(Indésens)
**

The players are all French and the paying vivacious but too respectful for my taste. The piano version of the Prélude à l’après midi d’un faune is typically anaemic.

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Messiaen: Turangalila symphony
(Hyperion)
****

The most explosive account in years of Messiaen’s essay in sexual continence is performed by a Norwegian orchestra (Bergen) with a Spanish conductor (Juanjo Mena) and a British pianist and ondeist (Steven Osborne, Cynthia Millar). The pent-up energy is almost palpable, the playing superb and the sound quality (Andrew Keener/Simon Eadon) outstanding. Even a non-Messiaenist will be persuaded of this second coming.

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July 29, 2012

Arnold Schoenberg: complete songs
(Capriccio)
****

Song by song by Schoenberg is an album no-one has attempted before, and the more one spins through four CDs the more revealing it becomes. Who knew that the great revolutionary wrote so many little ditties, and of such trifling banality?

Song, for Schoenberg, seemed to be the only musical education he ever got, a means of self-teaching. The earliest number in this set date from 1893, when he was a glum teen being sent to work in a bank. But rather than pitching for the pop charts or trying his luck with a sweet young girl, the composer is working from the outset to push the language of Brahms to its limits and be a serious contender.

The result is often rather lovely – ‘You Turn Your Back on Me – as well as character revealing. Undeterred by lack of performance or romantic success, Schoenberg got married and carried on writing, extending his own boundaries with the Book of Hanging Gardens and the Cabaret Songs. He stopped writing songs at a seminal moment – the moment he inserts a song in his second string quartet in the summer of 1908, abandoning tonality and changing the course of music forever.

He returned to the form only once more, in a 1929 commission to set four German folksongs, which came at a time that Schoenberg was starting to define his place in the history and tradition of German music. Song is peripheral to his reputation but, gathered together, the songs show how he became the composer he is.

The singing here is accurate, beautiful and exemplary. Claudia Barainsky and Melanie Diener are the sopranos, Anke Vondung the mezzo, Christa Mayer the contralto, Markus Schäffer the tenor and Konrad Jarnot the head-and-shoulders standout baritone. Urs Liska accompanies, and the sound could not be better. Throw out your old recordings of Schoenberg songs: this is the set to have.

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3 piano concerto CDs



Adolf Wiklund
(Hyperion)
***

Never heard of him? Wiklund (1879-1950) is number 57 in Hyperion’s series on the Romantic piano concerto. His first effort opens so assertively that you’re tempted to imagine a masterpiece might follow. It doesn’t, but the listening’s easy. Martin Sturfält plays, Andrew Manze conducts the Helsingborg SO.

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Schumann
(Hyperion)
**

Angela Hewitt’s mastery in Bach and Mozart does not transfer readily to heavy-handed romantics. Her phrasing is lovely but she seldom subdues a big orchestra (the DSO, conductor Hannu Lintu) or suggests that she is driving the tank.

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Liszt &c
(Naïve)
****

Playing Liszt on an Erard of his own time and a period-instrument orchestra (Le Cercle de l’Harmonie) is like inviting an elephant to walk on plywood. A nasty accident could happen at any moment. Bertrand Chamayou averts one, narrowly. The other two pieces on disc are a Berlioz reverie for violin and orch and a forgotten symphony by Napoleon-Henri Reber. You have to hear it once, if just for the name. Live performance, pellucid sound.

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July 22, 2012

Beethoven’s viola
(Onyx)
****

Viola players are always complaining they get overlooked. Not by young Beethoven, it seems. There’s a 1799 sonatina in C for viola and cello lying around in manuscript at the state library in Berlin, and a 1796/7 duo for the same instruments in E flat. Both are full of the joys of spring, rippling with dance rhythms and an invitation to waltz the night away. There is a suspicion Beethoven played the viola part himself in at least one of the works, writes Professor Barry Cooper in a lucid sleeve note to this interesting release.

The duos, however, are the sum of Beeethoven’s viola parts. The rest of this album consists of arrangements – a viola-piano setting of the string trio opus 8 by William Primrose; a reworking of the fifth cello sonata; and, best of all, a conversion by Maxim Rysanov of the opus 11 clarinet trio for viola, cello and piano. The switch works for the late Brahms clarinet sonatas and positively soars in Beethoven.

Rysanov, a BBC New Generation Artist, plays a gorgeous 1780 Guadagnini with the flair and hunger of a formula-one driver. He takes the bends at speed and challenges the rest of the field to keep up. The highly spirited musicianship is shared, bend for bend, by Kristina Blaumane’s cello and Jacob Katsnelson’s piano.

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3 Mahler CDs



Stenz: 3
(Oehms)
**

Markus Stenz and the Gurzenich orchestra of Cologne delivered one of the most invigorating Mahler 5ths of recent years. The 3rd is less coherent, with too many stop-starts and too little irony in the opening movement; insufficient tension, too, in the marvellous concluding adagio.

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Kreizberg: 5
(OPMC)
****

Yakov Kreizberg, who died last year, was immersed in the language of Mahler and Shostakovich. This live recording of a September 2010 concert of the 5th symphony with the Monte-Carlo Philharmonic is not without flaws, but you will seldom hear a more dancing, mocking, life-affirming realisation of the difficult Scherzo, ahead of the evanescent, eternally ambiguous Adagio. The performance demands to be heard.

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Haitink: 9
(BR Klassik)
****

Haitink has long sought to de-emotionalise Mahler. It’s an interesting exercise in some symphonies, but never in the 9th where Mahler pushes himself to the edge. Of Haitink’s several recordings, this is the least convincing – though tautly played by the Bavarian Radio SO with a stunning concertmaster solo in the finale.

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July 15, 2012

Bloch: Shelomo, &c.
(Hyperion)
*****

Ernest Bloch’s ‘Hebrew rhapsody’ for cello and orchestra, written in Geneva in 1916, has been performed with passion and conviction by many great cellists, none of whom has persuaded me that I ever wanted to hear the piece again. This new recording by Natalie Clein is the first to do so.

The BBC’s 1995 Young Musician of the Year, Clein is a thoughtful artist with a gift for lyrical understatement. Bloch was a cosmopolitan chameleon who made his mark, aged 30, with a 1910 Macbeth opera in Paris. During the First World War he immersed himself in Jewish self-discovery in neutral Switzerland. The next decade he spent in Italy before reinventing himself in a new world with the huge 1928 oratorio America. The real Ernest Bloch is ever elusive.

Clein’s approach is commendably uncluttered. In Shelomo’s many liturgical quotations, most notably in the melody that Bloch supposedly heard his father sing in Hebrew, she adopts a stiff upper lip of British reserve that allows the music to speak for itself and shields it from the hazards of kitsch. Her restraint, ably supported by conductor Ilan Volkov and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, pays off. Shelomo becomes a meditative cello concerto in Elgarian vein and less of an essay in exotic anthropology. No-one since Gregor Piatigorsky in 1957 has made such sense and beauty of the score.

In Bloch’s suites From Jewish Life and Voice in the Wilderness lyricism runs on a looser rein, stopping short of sentimentality. Max Bruch’s version of the Kol Nidrei recitation for cello and orchestra might have benefited from a bigger change of gear; but that is a tiny grip. You cannot wish to hear a clearer, lovelier investigation of Bloch’s Jewish decade.

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Recent piano CDs



Alexandara Dariescu
(Champs Hill)
***

The prodigious young Rumanian playes Schumann’s Abegg variations, Liszt B-minor ballade and three Chopins in a career-launch demonstration disc. We can expect to hear her soon in more substantial stuff.

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Valentina Lisitsa
(Decca)
***

The night an unrecorded pianist nearly filled the Royal Albert Hall is preserved here: some fabulous Rachmaninov playing amidst a basket of popular pieces chosen inline by Valentina’s Youtube audience. Great fun, but just wait now for the Decca release of those Rachmaninov concertos…

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Bezhod Abduraimov
(Decca)
**

Decca’s newest signing is a 21 year-old from Tashkent with technique to spare and much yet to learn. His stunning USP is Vladimir Horowitz’s version of the Saint-Saens Danse macabre. Less convincing is Prokofiev’s sixth sonata, played with furious bravura that masks the horrific anger of the piece.

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Mendelssohn’s Songs Without words
(CPO)
****

I haven’t heard a complete set in years. Michel Korstick plays all eight books with serious, almost self-effacing dedication that makes this the perfect reference set.

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July 8, 2012

Night Music: Voice in the Leaves
(Louth Contemporary Music)
****

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Handel: Alceste
(Chandos)
****

Handel operas do not come short, so to find one at an hour’s length is a good start. Most contain arias you’ve heard before, and this is no exception: familiarity breeds contentment. ‘Still caressing and caress’d’ is a very old friend. The score amounts to incidental music to a play by Tobias Smollett. Lucy Crowe is the splendid soprano, Benjamin Hullett the tenor, Andrew Foster-Williams the bass-baritone. Christian Curnyn conducts the Early Opera Company with summery breeziness. Lovely stuff.

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Erkki-Sven Tüür: Awakening
(Ondine)
***

The Estonian composer is never uninteresting. His title track for mixed choir and chamber ensemble develops organically out of an orchestra’s tuning-up noises into a delicate and absorbing lifecycle meditation. Do try. I do, often.

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Brooklyn Rider: seven steps
(ICR)
***

The New York crowd-funded quartet approach the Beethoven opus 131 by way of a pair of contemporary meditative scores. Whether the whole package works is a matter of personal taste, but the energy and conviction are irresistible and the playing is pretty damn fine.

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Miah Persson
(Wigmore Live)
***

The Sussex-based Swedish soprano pairs Schubert songs in her recital with Grieg and Sibelius. It’s an unexpected conjunction, revealing more colours than one normally finds in the bleak Sibelius landscape and more austerity than Schubert often yields. Roger Vignoles accompanies, in pristine sound.

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Witold Lutoslawski: musique funèbre
(ECM)
****

Nothing can be taken for granted in a Luto score. He may call it funereal but vitality and vivacity seep through the cracks and the music becomes as life affirming as the Rumanian dances by Bartok which fill out the disc. The Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra play with reall bite and the Hungarian Radio children’s chorus close the album on a spiritual high.

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July 2, 2012

Marianna Martines: Il primo amore
(Sony)
****

The search for ‘lost’ women composers has kept armies of academics busily occupied for decades without adding a single personality to the established canon. Why women composers failed to make a name in the late 18th and early 19th centuries when women writers found a fertile market is too large a subject for this space, but given the amount of research expended it is unlikely that any will ever emerge at this late stage to challenge the classical giants.

That said, Marianna Martines (1744-1812) is more than mere curio. Spotted by Charles Burney in 1772 as ‘the most perfect lady singer I have ever heard’ and ‘very nimble’ on the harpsichord, she liked to interpolate her own pieces in recital at the great courts of Europe, and they seem to have been well received. The Overture in C major that opens this intriguing album would not have disgraced the young Mozart and the cembalo concerto in E major has more going for it than many by Clementi.

Both are recent discoveries and world premiere recordings by La Floridiana and its director Nicoletta Paraschivescu.

Less successful are the concert arias in which, you would have imagined, Marianna wanted to display the cream of her skills. The emotion here is tepid and the invention small, for all the delicate advocacy of soprano Nuria Rial. Could it be that women composers were inhibited from releasing the range of expression that was available to men? We will never know. Marianna, who was trained as a child by the playwright and librettist Metastasio, became his carer in old age. She taught at the Accademia in Bologna and never married.

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Three Italian triumphs

1612 Italian Vespers
(Decca)
****

I Fagiolini’s selection of devotions by Monteverdi, Palestrina, two Gabrielis and several lesser souls is consistently uplifting and virtuosically sung. The tension that director Robert Hollingworth obtains in performance is in a class of its own among current baroque explorers.

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Caro Sposo
(Nimbus Alliance)
***

Eric Headley has retrieved an oratorio by Marco Marazzoli (1602-1662) from Vatican archives and given it the kind of performance its composer might have wished but could not have dreamed of, since women’s voices were banned in church. There are four attractive arias; the rest is well made and well sung but hardly memorable.

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Vivaldi: New Discoveries II
(Naïve)
***

A scintillating flute concerto gets the full treatment from Alexis Kossenko and Modo Antiquo; the remainder is good background music for a high-class jewellery store.

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June 24, 2012

Sounds of the 30s, Stefano Bollani/Riccardo Chailly
(Decca)
****

So riveting was the Rhapsody in Blue played by this pair in Leipzig last year that my fingers couldn’t rip the cellophane fast enough off this new release and I had to resort to teeth. Bollani, an Italian jazz drummer and pianist, has a rare feel for the inter-War idiom and an even rarer capacity to adapt his improvisational flair to the stringencies of a great orchestra and conductor. What would they come up with next?

The first 45 minutes are unalloyed bliss. The Ravel G major concerto feels less French and more febrile than I have heard it before, dancing (in George Steiner’s famous phrase) on the edge of a volcano. Stravinsky’s Tango, in both piano and orchestra forms, cannot shed its European corsets but a pair of Weill songs on raw piano amplify the smoky anxieties of the era. Bollano plays Weill as Milva sang him – with an Italian F.U. to literal niceties and an unforgettable penetration.

That, however, was the end of my rapture. The last half-hour comprises a 1931 ballet suite, Mille u una notte (1001 Nights) by Victor de Sabata, one of the most influential conductors of La Scala, Milan. A musician of intellectual force and personal austerity, he was (like many maestros) a persistent, frustrated composer. In this score de Sabata meanders all over the place. His themes are unoriginal, hovering on the verge of pastiche. The suite may be an ironic commentary on the era; much of the time it sounds more like a man harnessing the power of a great orchestra to no worthwhile purpose. I wish they had left this one in the drawer.

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Two war-torn recitals

Rudi Stephan: Songs
(MDG)
***

Shot by a wounded comrade on the Russian front in 1915, aged 28, Rudi Stephan wrote around 50 songs, of which 20 survived a warehouse fire in the Second World War. Some ranked him with Pfitzner and Strauss as the future of the German Lied. Tonally conservative and rather morose, he had an ear for quirky sonorities and was evidently fond of the reed organ, the kunstharmonium. The mezzo Sophie Harmsen and bass Alexander Vassiliev give it their best shot, with Miri Yampolsky on piano, but what grabs the ear is Ryoko Morooka’s harmonium.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical





Martin Shaw: The Airmen
(Delphian)
***

A contemporary of Vaughan Williams, Shaw lived through two world wars. His songs reflect classic RVW themes of wasted lives and landscapes. Sophie Bevan, Andrew Kennedy and Roderick Williams sing heart and soul in this boldly curated, subtly affecting retrieval by the pianist Iain Burnside.

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June 17, 2012

Arias for Guadagni
(Hyperion)
*****

Aria recitals discs are, by definition, non-recommendable. They exist to advertise the singer more than the song and any intellectual coherence in the programming is generally incidental. Most go straight into the bin without a second spin.

This release, however, could be the exception that proves the rule. Iestyn Davies, an ascendant counter-tenor, has sampled the life of Gaetano Guadagni (1728-1792), a castrato who flourished in mid-18th century London and Vienna. The disc is an eclectic selection of the music he performed.

Top of the line is, inevitably, late-period Handel – the great arias from his Biblical oratorios. But there’s also a pair of songs from the master’s long-forgotten assistant, John Christopher Smith, and from his aggressive local competitor, Thomas Arne – a vengeance aria from Alfred.

In Vienna, Guadagni got to know Gluck, who wrote Orfeo with his voice in mind. But he also sang music by Johann Adolf Hasse who was more than just a Mozart also-ran. And between one composers and the next Guadagni slipped in in a few arias of his own. Popular and generous, Guadagni lived to see demanded for his tyoe of singer wane as more women mounted the opera stage.

Iestyn Davies recreates his world without apology or nostalgia. This is a documentary snatch of singing style, vividly accompanied by the baroque group Arcangelo, with conductor Jonathan Cohen. Added to the unsuspected variety of musical invention, the listener has forbidden sense of peeking behind the curtain of history to observe opera at a critical moment in its formation. I was gripped by Iestyn Davies’s concept and by the controlled beauty of his boyish voice.

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3 more vocal CDs

Véronique Gens
(Ondine)
****

This performance may be the nuits d’été de nos jours, a sumptuous exploration of Berlioz’s great set by a soprano who has emerged from Baroque tweeting into the romantic big time. The accompaniment by the Orchestre National des Pays de Loire under John Axelrod is exemplary.

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Christian Gerhaher: Ferne Geliebte
(Sony)
****

The Austrian baritone sandwiches Schoenberg (Hanging Gardens) and Berg (Altenburg Postcards) between slices of Beethoven and Haydn. Against all odds, the blend feels organic, with the atonal Schoenberg songs sounding specially effective; Gerold Huber accompanies.

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Erwin Schrott: Arias
(Sony)
**

This is a big, bad aria album of the vanity era – a set of bleeding opera chunks that display the beefcake baritone in his showcase roles. The voice is in good shape, the orchestra near-inaudible.

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June 10, 2012

Vivaldi: chamber sonatas, opus 1
(naïve)
*****

Just when you think you’ve heard enough Vivaldi in elevators and waiting rooms to last three lifetimes, along comes an independent French label with a release to blow cobwebs from fixed minds and knitted socks off a Venetian nun. These sonatas are the first published work of the red-haired priestly teacher of orphan girls, composed for two violins, cello and harpsichord (known as clavicembalo).

Intended for girls of average ability, they are simple in texture and execution, turning tricky and exciting only if the prescribed tempi are observed. They must have sounded horrible in a hot classroom but, played with the skill and precision of L’Estravagante, a dazzling Baroque quartet, and with immaculate studio engineering by Fabio Framba, here they sound nothing less than exhilarating.

The melodies are neither durable nor convincingly original. Vivaldi, like everyone else in his time, took his themes from street ballads and his more famous colleagues. There are notable similarities with Corelli in the way he shapes an adagio, for instance. Still, for a debut work, the set is richly varied and sufficiently intriguiing to make you want to hear more – which is not something I have felt about Vivaldi since my first Four Seasons LP wore out the bottom of its groove.

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3 concerto CDs

Elgar, Gal: cello concertos
(Avie)
***

The first Brazilian soloist to attempt the Elgar, Antonio Meneses takes a languid stroll through unaffected nostalgia. There is more beauty here than pain and the playing of the Northern Sinfonia under Claudio Cruz evokes many an image of lost landscapes. One misses, perhaps, the edge of all those First World War losses. It companion piece, the little-known Hans Gal concerto, has a bright opening but not much to follow.

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Nielsen, Tchaikovsky: violin concertos
(EMI)
***

The prodigious Norwegian Vilde Frang lights up the underplayed Nielsen like a burst of Aurora borealis. The Danish national orchestra with Elvind Gullberg Jensen add all the right colours to the backdrop; it is hard to recall hearing the work more aptly performed. In the Tchaikovsky concerto, unfortunately, they have little to add.

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Strauss, Skalkottas, Aho: oboe concertos
(MDG)
****

Written for a US Occupation soldier in 1945, the Strauss oboe concerto is sickly-sweet and overly ingratiating, a kind of dessert to his morbid Metamorphosen. The Skalkottas work, written six years earlier by an orchestral violinist on a subsistence wage in Athens, is uncompromising and modern, yet gently seductive. Kalevi Aho’s piece is a duet for oboe and cello. The soloist is Yeon-Hee Kwak, former principal of Bavarian Radio, and the sound she yields is total serenity.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical









June 3, 2012

Nikolai Medtner: piano concertos and solo pieces
(Melodiya)
****

Medtner (1880-1951) was the Rachmaninov who stayed behind in Russia when the big names went west after the 1917 revolutions. Similar in style and lugubrious temperament to his friend and mentor, he stuck around until 1921 before slipping away to Berlin and Paris, where he nearly starved.

Rachmaninov fixed him a North American tour in 1924, but Medtner’s insistence on playing his own music fell flat with audiences. He wound up from 1935 in England, where he won eccentric support from the Maharajah of Mysore, who paid for his works to be recorded by EMI.

Despite his self-exile and lack of popular success, Medtner was remembered in Russia for his initial loyalty and continued to be performed there in the years the Rachmaninov was banned – to the point where a Medtner tradition evolved. These rare recordings, retrieved from Soviet archives, feature Tatiana Nikolayeva in the first concerto and Abram Schatzkes in the second, both conducted by Evgeny Svetlanov. The playing is of an order that cries out to be heard; the music itself may leave you in two minds.

Nikolayeva, the famed champion of Shostakovich’s preludes and fugues, cannot prevent the opening and other sections of Medtner’s C-minor concerto from sounding as if they were hacked from the same forest as Rachmaninov’s C-minor. In a single movement lasting 37 minutes, written between 1914 and 1918, the concerto lacks enough originality for its length, let alone a heart-bender theme that might imprint it forever on the listener’s memory. Nikolayeva, heedless of such shortcomings, plays it like a deathless masterpiece with a contemplative oasis at its centre. She is even more compelling in the solo pieces that follow, a master-pianist who hears no voice but her inner self.

Schatzkes, a professor at the Moscow Conservatoire, was one of many fine Jewish artists who were kept out of the limelight by the Soviet regime. His playing of the second concerto, also in C minor, is more playful than Nikolayeva’s. The central Romanza movement owes something to Rachmaninov’s preludes but the finale proclaims an altogether individual and unexpected exuberance. I have never heard Medtner sound so sunny and spirited. The ensuing sonata, op 38/1, is another of those rapt oases. Those who stayed in Russia understood this music best.

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Three more Russian discoveries

Nikolai Rakov: works for violin and piano
(Crystal)
***

Rakov (1908-90) steered a deft course between Soviet expectations – he won the 1946 Stalin Prize – and his romantic inclinations, notably toward the Franck sonata. Both tendencies are evenly displayed here by David Frühwirth and Milana Chernyavska.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical





Alfred Schnittke: 12 Penitential Psalms; Voices of Nature
(Hänssler)
****

Schnittke’s vocal writing, rarely heard, sounds like no other composer’s. Atonal at times, organic at others, it has both wit and spirituality, the unlikeliest of blends. If your ears need a rest from middle-of-the-road Eric Whitacre, start here.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical







Verdi Requiem
(ICA)
*****

An all-Russian Requiem with Galina Vishnevskaya at the centre might send you scuttling for the nearest nuclear bunker with a bottle of iced vodka. Hold on. This 1960 Moscow concert, conducted by Igor Markevitch, is among the most thrilling Requiems I have heard since Giulini’s – knife-edge tempi, thunderous choirs and Nina Isakova, Vladmimir Ivanovsky and Ivan Petrov with Galina on the frontline in all-out assault. It was Markevitch’s first return to his native land since 1935 and the energy is sensational. Must be heard to be believed.

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May 28, 2012

Schubert: String quartets 13, 14, 15
(Virgin)
*****

The difference between a good string quartet and a great one is no more than a fraction of a heartbeat. The Artemis Quartet – two Russians, two Germans, based in Berlin – have made the imperceptible upward transition in the past two years.

It’s not so much how they play as how they play together – the fractional anticipations that foster an illusion of four minds thinking as one, eight arms in total cohesion. Together since 1989, their Beethoven cycle on Virgin is both the most coherent and the most integrally conceived set in decades. And that’s without saying a word about the sheer serenity of the playing.

It is no easy matter to go from the high mindedness of Beethoven to the melodic allure of Schubert. The Artemis make no perceptible alteration to their approach. The tone is taut and bright, the tempi brisk and the breathing organic. In Death and the Maiden, there is none of the pathos that some quartets pump in for the third hankie effect. In the Rosamunde quartet, the symphonic sonorities point ahead to Mendelssohn and Schumann. And in the ultimate G major quartet, 50 minutes long and staring death in the eye, the Artemis present an interpretation of psychological neutrality, never second-guessing the composer’s sentiments and intentions.

The cumulative effect is utterly convincing. You’d need to go back two decades to the Alban Berg Quartet for an account of comparable beauty and authority. This is a great performance by a very great quartet.

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Three Shostakovich CDs

Symphonies 2, 15
(Naxos)
***

Vasily Petrenko is midway through an illuminating Liverpool cycle. The short second symphony is a hair-raising piece of political exuberance; the 15th is a dying man’s exhalation. The former performance here is brilliant. In the 15th, the tempo slackens and the sound turns oddly opaque.

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Symphonies 9, 15
(Hänssler)
****

In this captivating account of the 15th, Andrey Boreyko navigates its mysterious emptiness with a Mahlerian lexicon and a failsafe compass. His performance with SWR-Stuttgart is four minutes shorter than Petrenko’s in Liverpool. The problematic post-War 9th falls between two stools of exhilaration and fear; the solution here is not always crystal-clear.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical







String quartets 1-4
(Cedille)
****

The US-based Pacifica Quartet takes a careful, depoliticised approach to the most intimate personal utterances of the besieged composer, who did not start writing quartets until Stalin threatened his life in 1935. Sheer beauty justifies the neutral tactic, though one misses the suppressed rage that imbues Russian interpretations. That said, the interpretation is fully thought-through than the Emersons and the sound is outstanding. There is a bonus quartet – Prokofiev’s second.

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May 21, 2012

Arnold Schoenberg - Complete Works for Piano
(Odradek)
****

The rush of talent is as limitless as the infinity of labels that now flourish where once the majors commanded attention. Winnowing wheat from chaff becomes ever more difficult and the risk of missing a remarkable artist is a constant anxiety. Odradek is a start-up label based in Italy and committed to new artists and modern work. A one-CD album of Arnold Schoenberg’s solo piano works has not come my way for years, perhaps since Pollini three decades ago. Pina Napolitano plays the tricky pieces with light fingers and innate wit, bringing out a welter of contemporary parallels – Mahler in op 11/2, Busoni in op 23 – amid a panoply of delicate beauty.

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New names at the piano

Musical Toys
(Odradek)
***

The world premiere of Unsuk Chin’s piano etudes is the ear-catcher on Mei Yi Foo’s debut album, its Cage-like plinks intermingling with robust grand tones. Two sets of sound adventures by Gubaidulina and Ligeti take the ear where it has never thought to go before, and with a pianist it can really trust.

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Viktor Ullmann: Piano Sonatas Nos. 5-7
(Crystal)
****

Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944) is known for the music he composed in Terezin camp, before he was murdered in Auschwitz. It includes three piano sonatas, nos 5-7, that are kept deliberately simple and expressive for his camp audience yet still convey the ideas of his mentor, Schoenberg and Haba. Lala Isakova interprets with high skill and deep sympathy.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical







Schulhoff: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1 & 3 & Jazz Improvisations for 2 pianos
(Crystal)
***

Erwin Schulhof (1894-1942), murdered by the Nazis, was an eclectic who veered from Dadism to atonality. His first sonata is reminiscent of Bartok while his jazz improvisations are more a tribute to the artform than an instinctual part of it. Margarete Babinsky is the committed interpreter.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical







Chopin: The Complete Preludes
(Telarc)
**

Vanessa Perez, a Venezuelan, attacks Chopin's Preludes with gusto and finesse, almost to the point of recklessness (Telarc **). Fiachra Garvey, from Ireland, gives a rather blustery account of Samuel Barber’s sonata, albeit underpinned by a gripping narrative line (RTELyric **). Katia Apekisheva should have been advised against making another superfluous recording of Mussorgsky’s Pictures; but her Shostakovich Preludes are tender and captivating.

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Stephen Osborne
(Naïve)
****

When a Russian arrives on a French label playing Ravel, expectancy is high. Anna Vinnitskaya adds a wintry Baltic greyness to the Pavane and a brilliant sparkle to the Mirroirs. Her account of Gaspard de la Nuit is a riveting piece of storytelling. This is a pianist who commands full attention.

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May 13, 2012

A rush of Weinbergs

Mieczyslaw Weinberg (1919-1996) would have been mightily surprised at the attention that is turning his way these days. In the 1980s, as the Soviet Union fell apart, he let slip a regret that his work ‘belongs in the attic’ because it ‘cannot correspond to current fashion.’ A Hitler refugee and close friend of Dmitri Shostakovich, Weinberg wrote music that was tonal, rhythmic and melodically rich. He wrote too much – 27 symphonies, 17 string quartets, countless concertos. Finding a path into Weinberg is not easy. His opera The Passenger, now on the world circuit, divides critics and audiences alike. Where to begin? is the big question with Weinberg. Recent releases provide some strong tips.



3rd symphony
(Chandos)
****

The emerging Weinberg cycle from Sweden’s national orchestra in Gothenburg is beautifully played under Thord Svedlund’s impressive direction. The woodwind solos are often stunning and the heavy, pounding passages, reminiscent of Shostakovich at his angriest, could put an invading army to flight. The third symphony, rejected by Stalin’s censors in 1949 for being insufficiently ‘of the people, for the people’, received its first performance 11 years later after multiple revisions. It is Weinberg’s first mature symphony and it commands undivided attention for its full half-hour, equal in every way to early Shpostakovich. The disc filler is the Golden Key suite, less compelling.

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6th symphony
(Naxos)
***

With a full boys’ choir singing idealistic texts, this 1963 work comes close to off-the-shelf Soviet propaganda. Redemption arrives in the 4th movement, a resetting of Jewish melodies. The filler is a Rhapsody on Moldavian Themes that sounds irresistibly like Jewish wedding music and makes you want to get up and dance the night away. Vladmir Lande conducts the lively, sometimes slightly ragged, St Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical





20th symphony
(Chandos)
****

By his 20th symphony (opus 150) in 1988, Weinberg was running low in spirit and ideas. ‘With God’s help I may yet finish this one, but I doubt it,’ he writes on the title page. There is a strong Mahlerian impetus in the five-movement work, a lot of fatalism and not much hope. It would be too depressing without the must-buy on this release - a cello concerto, written for Slava Rostropovich and meltingly delivered by Claes Gunnerson and the Gothenburg orchestra, conductor Third Svedlund. Absolutely compelling.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical







Chamber music for woodwinds
(CPO)
****

If ever you need a 20-minute sonata for solo bassoon, it’s here. The rest, nicely curated by the Irish-based pianist Elisaveta Blumina, consists of a clarinet-piano sonata, 12 miniatures for flute and piano and a trio for flute, viola and harp whose textures never fail to astonish. Weinberg had a wonderful ear and a fertile imagination. The playing it top-class. Just listen.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical









May 5, 2012

Glass: 9th symphony
(OMM)
***

The ninth symphony by Philip Glass, premiered three months ago in Linz, is out on record. That is all most readers will wish to know. The composer’s fans will rush out and buy it and the rest will mutter something about repetitive rhythms and shrug their shoulders. Both will be the poorer for that snap decision.

Glass, as conductor Dennis Russell Davies remarks in a program note, was not cut out to write a symphony. When they premiered his Low Symphony in 1992, neither composer no conductor thought of calling it his first since there was never likely to be a second. Glass, however, defies easy categorisation.

Over the next two decades he worked his way up to achieve a Beethoven, Schubert or Dvorak total. The 1st and 4th Glass symphonies are based on tunes by David Bowie and Brian Eno. The 5th and 7th use soloists and large chorus, the 6th sets a poem by Allen Ginzburg while the 3rd, modelled on Strauss’s Metamorphosen, is for strings alone.

The 9th, in line with the 2nd and 8th, is abstract music, rhythmically driven and unmistakable for the work of any other composer. Its second movement opens with a heart-melter of a Rachmaninov-lite theme, just waiting to be made into a movie (unless it has already been taken from one). There are more surprises here that you might expect from a minimalist. The Linz orchestra play well Try before you buy.

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3 Beethoven variations CDs

Jeremy Denk
(Nonesuch)
***

The ever-thoughtful pianist plays two books of Ligeti Etudes either side of Beethoven’s final sonata, the opus 111. It works – just. Ligeti’s skittish riffs pave a polite path for the massive C-minor cragface and, quite wittily, take us back down. Denk’s fingers know no fear.

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Andreas Steier
(Harmonia Mundi)
***

It must have seemed a good idea on paper to play a dozen other people’s variations on Diabelli’s theme before arriving at Beethoven’s, but it’s a long wait before you reach the main course. Staier is deftly lyrical on a mock-period fortepiano.

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Stephen Osborne
(Hyperion)
****

Osborne’s solo Beethoven cycle has reached the three sets of Bagatelles and smaller variations. His touch is so sure that never for a moment does one hear these trivia as casual amusements, rather as flasher of insight into the composer’s lighter side. Für Elise alone is worth the price of purchase.

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April 29, 2012

Rachmaninov’s ‘5th’ piano concerto
(DG)
***

So unflagging is the appeal of Sergei Rachmaninov that his publisher, Boosey & Hawkes, will suffer a serious dip when his music goes out of copyright in 2013, 70 years after his death. One way of extending it is to create new copyrights, which is what composer Alexander Warenberg has done. At the request of Rachmaninov’s grandson, Warenberg added a piano part to the second symphony, compressed two movements into one and called it a fifth piano concerto.

Several players have launched the work on video, including Denis Matsuev and Valentina Lisitsa. This, I believe, is its first major-label audio recording. I visited the Abbey Road sessions in February and was impressed by the cohesion of the piece. More remarkable still is the speed of release – two months from studio session to shops must be some kind of a record even for a night-owl producer like Michael Fine. The sound is immaculate and the London Symphony Orchestra, under Michael Francis, are on good weekday form, the woodwinds especially so.

The Korean soloist Julius-Jeongwon Kim is a tad hesitant and heavy in some entries, overwhelmed perhaps by the responsibility of introducing a piano where no piano was meant to go. But he has technique to spare and finds his high moments in roller-coaster riffs and dashes. The middle movement opens with one of Rachmaninov’s mst famous tunes and is, as ever, irresistible. The LSO clarinet (I can’t remember who it was) deserves an OBE in the next Queen’s Honours List. The companion work is Shostakovich’s second concerto, easy on the fingers, competently done.

>Buy this CD at Yesasia



3 song CDs

Walter Arlen: Es geht wohl anders
(Gramola)
***

Exiled from Vienna in 1939, aged 18, Arlen spent much of his career as a music critic on the Los Angeles Times. His songs, beautifully rendered by Rebecca Nelsen and Christian Immler (Danny Driver, piano), feel as if time stopped just before his flight. Tonal to a fault and meticulous in their attention to word colour, they set a range of texts from the Bible to Czeslaw Milosz in a gentle, regretful way. At times, you wish Arlen might have permitted himself a little rage.

>Buy this CD at Pressto Classical





Serious Cabaret
(Orchid)
***

Mary Carewe crosses songs from Weimar Germany (Weill, Spoliansky, Hollaeder) with post-War America (Barber, Bowles, Bliztstein, Bolcom). The hybrid would probably work better in concert than it does on record and the two bookend arias – James Bond and Lionel Bart – undermine the concept. The singing, though, is terrific; Philip Mayers accompanies.

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Mercy and Grand: the music of Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan
(GB Records)
****

The composer Gavin Bryars has arranged and produced an album of American oddities by a songwriting couple who are a category to themselves. Three or four songs are unforgettable; others sound like Weill, Lehrer and Irish balladry all mixed in a stew. Jess Walker is the intrepid vocalist.

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April 22, 2012

Elgar conducts Elgar
(Music & Arts)
****

The music of Edward Elgar is a fixture in England and a passing fancy elsewhere. Local familiarity breeds complacency and confusion. Every British conductor thinks he conducts Elgar within ‘the tradition’, yet few agree on the essentials. Was Elgar a social climber or critical outsider, quintessentially English or aspirationally European, progressive or reactionary? And where do performances of Elgar by great interpreters from Mahler and Toscanini to Monteux and Abbado fit within that tradition?

Elgar was himself a capable conductor and the obvious place to start is with his own recordings. Made mostly in the scratchy acoustic era, they have been issued in many unsatisfactory transfers. The present set is copied from Elgar’s personal record collection and the sound, while distracting at first, gives an intense proximity to the source. After a few minutes, you do feel as if the composer is in the room.

That impression proves invaluable first in such rarities as the 1916 recording of the violin concerto with a slightly uncertain Marie Hall, favoured over the famous 1932 sessions with Yehudi Menuhin, and the 1925 version of the 2nd symphony, crisper than a lugubrious electrical version. The Sea Pictures with Leila Megane (whatever became of her?) are painted with a Debussian sensitivity for light and shade.

Elgar’s tendency as a conductor is to dwell on the beauties he makes, never wasting a good tune but at the same time, not allowing the pulse to drag into sentimentality. I doubt I have heard a more seductive performance of In the South, or a more rousing one of Cockaigne. In the 1914 take of the first Pomp and Circumstance march, the tempo has a slow, troubling solemnity which builds, bar by bar, into a hymn that could never be recognised as celebrating empire or war.

Elgar, in his own hands, is a far more complex creator than generally perceived and this set in an indispensable reference volume for anyone who thinks they know how his music should go. Test yourself against the master: you may well be sent back to the drawing board.

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Three captivating eccentricities

Joel Frederiksen: Requiem for a Pink Moon
(Harmonia Mundi)
*****

A baroque bass singer pays tribute, Tudor style to the short-lived pop balladeer Nick Drake, who killed himself in 1974. Captivating and sincere, Frederiksen never strays near to pastiche or kitsch: this is an exhilarating re-imagination in a period adaptation of uncanny aptness. Not to be missed.

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William Young, An Englishman Abroad
(CPO)
****

A 17th-century strolling player, Young played viola da gamba at various European courts. Rousseau rated him among the best and Simone Eckert’s Hamburg ensemble retrieves his lost work with sparkling vitality.

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Accordion concertos
(DaCapo)
****

If you thought the best way to kill a dinner party is to play modern Nordic concertos on the accordion, think again. Bjarke Morgensen’s set by Schmidt, Koppel, Lohse and Norgard, neither lugubrious nor autistic, fizz like an aural set of Northern Lights. Weird and scintillating stuff.

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April 15, 2012

Mahler

The centennial glut of Mahler recordings has dwindled to an interesting trickle. I had high hopes of the 7th symphony in Jonathan Nott’s Bamberg cycle (Tudor***). Nott, in previous release sought to recast Mahler as a hybrid of Bruckner and Boulez, tradition allied to modernity without the angular individuality of Mahlerian expression. The 7th is the most enigmatic of Mahler symphonies, grasped at first hearing only by one of Mahler's circle - and that was Arnold Schoenberg, who makes frequent references to it in his works. Nott, as a 20th century specialist, ought to get more our of the 7th than the rest.

And indeed he does. The separation of textures in the opening movement brings clinical analysis to a narrative that is all too often treated with an excess of bucolic sentiment. The interior Night Music movements are nicely done and the symphony seems to be heading for ultimate coherence when, without good cause, conductor and orchestra slip into showtime mode and deliver a finale rich in swagger and void of crucial meaning. The decisions undermines what might have been a prime contender.

Why would Nott do that? It strikes me that his shortcomings in Mahler are similar to Bernard Haitink’s. Both have a tendency to perform Mahler as abstract, emotion-lite music, ignoring the composer’s undercurrents and biographical intentions. Both men may take that comparison as a compliment. They do Mahler their own way. And there are many ways to Mahler.

Francois-Xavier Roth’s debut recording of Mahler 1 with the SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg (Hänssler **) may be his first and last, since the orchestra has been singled out contentiously by the radio authorities for abolition. Resistance is gathering and a petition has gathered 10,000 signatures. This is a fine ensemble with a proud history and this Mahler performances has many fine points. It is marred, however, by a misjudged languor at the opening of the first and third movements where the tempi should be at their most taut. The playing is refined and rather Straussian in texture; Mahler’s crucial ironies are missed. Roth, 40, has a knack for original programming. Here, he pairs Mahler with Webern’s early and naïve Im Sommerwind, a shrewd call.

Not expecting much of a 9th symphony from the Badische Staatskapelle of Karlsruhe and its British conductor Justin Brown (PanClassics ****), I was gripped from first to last by structural certainty and lyrical playing. The orchestra is 400 years old and Brown has been there since 2008, long enough to obtain pinpoint response and one-wheel turns at tricky corners. The first and last movements are transcendent, done with an instinctual grasp of the composer’s unique sound. This is as moving a 9th as any I have heard in the past two centennial years.

A radio retrieval of Fritz Reiner’s Chicago performance of Das Lied von der Erde shares the same tenor, Richard Lewis, as his famous RCA recording but substitutes Christa Ludwig for Maureen Forrester, a luxury upgrade. The problem is the boxy, 1958 concerthall sound (Archipel***), no match for RCA’s studio performance, but still worth hearing for the soloists. Lewis was coached for the performance by that astute Mahlerian Berthold Goldschmidt, the refugee composer who helped Deryck Cooke complete the tenth symphony.

Klaus Tennstedt’s 1986 BBC Proms performance of the 3rd symphony is sensational, brash sound notwithstanding (ICA Classics *****). Its fluidity of motion, Tennstedt’s ability to turn an emotion into its opposite and back again within the same phrase, is a marvel of intuitive interpretation, an inimitable lesson in conducting Mahler. Tennstedt's concerts were always several degrees more heightened than anything he achieved in studio and this one is breathtaking, devastating, iridescent and unforgettable.









April 8, 2012

Henryk Mikolai Gorecki: Totus Tuus
(Delphian)
****

It would be a pity and a travesty if Gorecki were remembered only for writing the first modern symphony to sell a million discs. A pity, because the third symphony is not worth hearing more than twice and a travesty because Gorecki was tonally more adventurous than the symphony’s simple devotions might suggest.

He delighted in greeting the homecoming Pope John Paul II with daring harmonies, couched with love in Church tradition but using the four corners of his choir to give a 20th century edge to his Marian hymn. Of the four choruses on this disc, the earliest is the most frugal, based on a three-note motif but full of surprising turns of harmony, a palette that he exploits to an exquisite perfection in a separate, seven-minute Amen. Compared to Penderecki’s grander, more reverent devotions, Gorecki’s always seem to push at the boundaries of familiarity. I cannot fathom why his piano concerto and string quartets are not performed more often.

He could not have wished for a more effective chorus than the National Youth Choir of Great Britain under Mike Brewer’s leadership. The NYCGB regularly puts grownups to shame and is heading (I’m told) for a big Olympic night this summer. Must be heard.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical



3 weird piano CDs

Bach Crossings
(FCR)
***

A set of 4-hand Bach transcriptions by the Hungarian ascetic Gyorgy Kurtag sounds at times like Glenn Gould on a no-carb diet. Duo Stephanie and Saar divvy up the keyboard, but why no sleeve notes? It would have been useful to know how and why Kurtag worked over these familiar pieces.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com





Godowsky: 22 Chopin Studies for left hand alone
(Paraty)
***

Leopold Godowsky decided that Chopin’s Etudes were not difficult enough, so he played them one-handed. Technique aside, this is a revealing work of commentary by one great virtuoso on another and Ivan Ilic plays with agreeable panache.

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Hauer: Etudes, op 22
(MDG)
***

Josef Matthias Hauer was the Viennese geek who invented the 12-note method ahead of Schoenberg, or so he claimed. The surprise here is the flowing musicality of these etudes, flexibly performed by Steffen Schleiermacher.

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April 1, 2012

Anton Rubinstein: Persian Love Songs
(TASP)
*****

Solo vocal recital discs flood my desk. Few grip the ear so fast and tight as this delightful discovery from a composer deservedly forgotten. Anton Rubinstein was bigger in his day than Tchaikovsky and far more powerful in Moscow, where he cofounded the conservatory with his brother Nikolai, who vetoed Tchaik’s first concerto.

Anton looked like Beethoven and had a big recital following on both sides of the Atlantic. His compositions faded to dust after his death in 1894; a recent release of the fourth concerto beside Rachmaninov’s third confirms the ruthless verdict of history: he was never a composer of arresting originality.

So when a set of Rubi songs arrived from something called Theartsongproject.com, I did not expect it to detain me for long. Three hearings later, I am still delighted. Soprano Hélène Lindqvist and her partner Philipp Vogler strike a fine balance with these sets of imperialist swagger, never taking it altogether at face value.

Rubinstein’s idea of Persian music was a few chazzanic melismas from his Jewish childhood running up and down the scales amid sentimental avowals of eternal devotion in high middle German. Some of the songs are by Goethe and Heine, who should have known better, but the formula is attractive enough to sustain an hour’s listening and the mind is drawn inexorably to the late-romanticism of Byron and the tricks it performed on the political imagination of the 19th century. Musically, Rubi does nothing ground-breaking. He is a template of his times and the songs have the sultry adhesiveness of 1970s California rock. Try some. You won’t regret it.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com



More Russian discoveries

Joseph Achron: Complete suites for violin and piano
(Hyperion)
****

There is more to Achron (1886-1943) than a Hebrew Melody made popular by Jascha Heifetz. Hagai Shaham and Arnon Erez spin out two and half hours’ worth, too much for one listening but plenty of surprises in the Suite Bizarre, and in another children’s suite that Heifetz adapted from a clarinet/string quartet original. Hagai Shaham has terrific kitsch control, essential in this syrupy music.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com





Kuss Quartet: Thème Russe
(Onyx)
***

11 variations on a Russian folksong by various composers is eight too many for my liking, but Stravinsky’s Concertino and Schnittke’s little-known elegy for Stravinsky are standouts in this very mixed bag.

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Chisato Kusunoki
(Quartz)
***

A Japanese pianist of high promise, Kusunoki gives a vivacious account of the Medtner G-minor sonata, tempering its morbidity with youthful verve. Her approach, less effective in Scriabin’s B-minor fantasy, is fully vindicated in Rachmaninov’s Moments musicaux and snippets of Liapunov. This is the sound of an artist who knows her own mind.

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March 25, 2012

Elgar: cello concerto
(Chandos)
****

It is striking how few cellists have left a mark on the Elgar concerto since Jacqueline du Pré’s first recording with John Barbirolli in 1965 (her second, with Daniel Barenboim, was blighted by illness). Among contenders of little residue are such big personalities as Yo Yo Ma, Truls Mork, Heinrich Schiff and Slava Rostropovich.

Several British cellists have had their quirky way with the piece but only two, Steven Isserlis and Natalie Clein, added contemporary edge. The road is wide open for a new cellist to claim ownership of the Elgar and for a long stretch of Paul Watkins’s fresh performance on Chandos I was prepared to be persuaded that he might be the one.

Watkins, the Emerson Quartet’s new cellist, understates the opening attack, avoiding Du Pré’s raw aggression and, no less awkward, the forced serenity of Pau Casals. His measured tread opens out onto the familiar rolling landscape of Elgar’s England, only now it is a land stripped by war of youth and pride. The sorrows are strong and near, here and in the slow middle movements. The playing is lyrical and the image heart-rending. In the finale, however, understatement comes unstuck and the listener is left craving resolution, clarity and a promise of continuity. At the end, one is not quite sure where Watkins stands on the central issue: will there always be an England?

Andrew Davis and the BBC Philharmonic provide close support to the soloist but no real challenge. The concerto battle of one against all modifies into a very English consensus. This fine and memorable performance might have been finer still with a conductor who was prepared to fight his corner.

The companion pieces on disc – Introduction and Allegro, Elegy for strings and the Pomp and Circumstance Marches – are irreproachably done, though the bombast of the marches drums the introspection of the cello concerto sadly out of mind. Blame lies again with the conductor; the cellist deserves all available stars.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com



Some other Schubert CDs

Symphonies 1&2
(RCA)
***

David Zinman made a name for the Tonhalle Orchestra with finely-wrought cycles of the Beethoven symphonies. Schubert, though, is another matter. The early works are little known and, by Schubert’s standards, of limited invention. The Tonhalle run rings around its pretty tunes.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com







Songs
(Bis)
****

Camilla Nylund is one of the sprightlier sopranos on the opera stage, with a voice that is full-on in Strauss and a little rich for Schubert. The compensating virtue is a high trill that lights up the slighter numbers and gives pesky Gretchen a good run on her wheel. Paul Rivinius accompanies and Marion Schwebel’s sound is exemplary.

>More info at Bis









March 18, 2012

Behind the Notes: Brahms performed by friends and colleagues
(Arbiter)
****

My upstairs neighbour Eleanor Rosé, who died in 1992, was taken as a child to meet Johannes Brahms. Greeted by a large man with a long beard, she assumed he was God. In 1890s Vienna, she was not alone in that supposition.

The aura attached to Brahms is still greater than to any other symphonist, Beethoven excepted. A recent youtube recording of the pianist Ilona Eibenschütz talking about the great man does more than just compel the viewer’s attention: it commands it. Eibenschütz (1872-1967) appears on Arbiter’s retrieval of archival rarities, playing three Brahms Intermezzi and a Ballade with a seriousness almost too great for these slight pieces to bear.

Yet, while she plays, the listener imagines that she is playing them for Brahms himself and the reverence becomes both appropriate and approval-seeking. This may not have been how Brahms wanted his music to be played, but it was undoubtedly how up-and-coming pianists played them to him. Two other Brahms pianists, Etelka Freund and Carl Friedburg, offer similar solemnity, although Friedburg grows robust with noisy confidence the further he gets into the early E-flat minor Scherzo.

The main course on this album is a 1936 Berlin radio recording of the D-minor concerto by the long-forgotten Alfred Hoehn, conducted by the aged Max Fiedler, whose friendship with Brahms was long and close. The tempi in the opening movement can lag to an extreme, but there is beauty and profundity in this account, especially in Hoehn’s Adagio soliloquies. Get over the scratchy, recessed orchestral sound and you will find this lost performance indispensable.

The closing piece on the disc is history in motion: Joseph Joachim, Brahms’s lifelong champion, playing the first Hungarian Dance in 1903. Joachim’s violin tone is forthright and he displays no false humility. When Joachim played for Brahms, it would seem he pulled no punches.

>For more info



Some Chopin competition winners and losers

Michel Block: The Spanish Album
(Piano Classics)
****

Block was a Mexican whom Arthur Rubinstein backed for second prize in the 1960 Warsaw competition, only to be vetoed by the bloc of Soviet judges. Block plays De Falla, Granados and Albeniz in a manner unheard since Rubinstein himself – full of fun and sun, fascinating from first touch.

>For more info





Garrick Ohlson plays Granados
(Hyperion)
**

The conjunction is unexpected and Ohlsson sounds a little heavy in the Goyescas, as if he’s unable to decide how imposing these pieces ought to sound. Ohlsson won the 1970 Chopin contest and is an outstanding interpreter of mainstream romanticism.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical/







Rafal Blechacz: Debussy, Szymanowski
(DG)
***

The 2005 Chopin champion, the first Pole to win in 30 years, is delicate with Debussy and down-to-earth in Szymanowski. The playing is pinpoint, lacking only the last degree of warmth and character.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical/







Yundi Li: The Red Piano
(EMI)
*

The 2000 Chopin laureate plays some of the splashier works of Chinese Communism, starting with the exhortatory Yellow River Concerto. The effect is rather like watching a brain surgeon cutting stale bread.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical









March 11, 2012

Erik Chisholm: piano concertos 1&2
(Hyperion)
***

This little-known Scots composer was either a wacko wanderer or some kind of secret genius: you’ll have to decide for yourselves. All I can judge with certainty from these two illuminating retrievals is that Chisholm had a rare ability to make an arresting opening statement and a quirky knack of taking your ears to places they had never expected to visit.

A Glaswegian, taught by Russians, Chisholm (1904-65) gave the Scottish premiere of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition before heading east and south. He served in Asia during the Second World War, founded an orchestra in Singapore and spent the rest of his life as Dean of Music at Capetown University.

His first concerto, titled Piobaireachd’, takes its title from Highland bagpipes and its opening theme from a popular lament for a dead cow. Oboe and bassoon do the pipey noises. Sniggers aside, it’s a haunting sound and Chisholm develops the material over four movements with constant invention and no slippage of concentration. You might wonder why he didn’t introduce real live bagpipes to the orchestra; probably, because it would have killed off the two front rows and blown out all the windows.

The second concerto, ‘Hindustani’, is founded on an Indian raga and struggles rather to adjust its meditative properties to western orchestral colours. At best, it’s sub-sub-Bartók. Danny Driver is the adventurous pianist and the BBC Scottish are conducted by Rory Macdonald, with Peter Thomas doing some melismatic concertmaster solos. Not an essential addition to the sum of human experience, perhaps but well worth a second listen. Chisholm warrants at least one hearing at the BBC Proms.

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Some more side-tracks

1600
(naïve)
****

What on earth was going on in music at the dawn of the 17th century? Rinaldo Alessandrini’s Concerto Italiano provides a set of pieces by Gabrieli, Frescobaldi, Bononcini and others more obscure, fizzing with mischief and dance. The sheer playfulness of the music blows a welcome hole in the ensuing classical solemnity.

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Pisendel
(Raumklang)
****

Johann Georg Pisendel (1687-1755) - you knew those dates, right? – led the Dresden orchestra in Handel’s time and wrote a cheeky G-major concerto for himself. Paired with pieces by Fasch, Heinichen, Telemann and Handel, it holds up well. Johannes Pramsohler leads the buzzy little group of International Baroque Players.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical





Maurice Ohana: Etudes d’interpretation
(LMG)
***

Ohana’s career was blighted by the political dominance of French modernism by Pierre Boulez. A Gibraltarian Jew, sceptical and progressive, he wrote on the edge of atonality without subscribing to dogma. These piano pieces, played with a rapturous tingle by Maria Paz Santibanez, fall midway between De Falla and Webern. Original thoughout and thought-provoking.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical/





Frederic Rzewski: The People United will never be Defeated
(Piano Classics)
****

An American in Rome, Rzewski wrote these 36 piano variations in 1975 as a tribute to the Allende socialist government in Chile, toppled in a US-backed military coup. He dedicated the piece to Ursula Oppens, who compels attention in this authoritative performance. At the sixth variation, the tension is so high you may need to walk around the block before taking in the seventh.

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March 4, 2012

Renee Fleming: Poèmes
(Decca)
*

How do I hate this record? Let me count the ways.

1 Ms Fleming appears on the cover in silken black curtain material, borrowed to all appearances from a reputable funeral parlour. Or a Second World War surplus store. Or Abu Ghraib. Either way, she’s telling you she’s not having fun, and nor will you.

2 She has completely the wrong voice for Ravel’s Shéhérezade, none of the required shimmer of mystery. Beside the enchanted flute, she is a Chevvy in a carwash, an American in a Chateau-Lafite winery ordering bottled Coke.

3 She’s not helped by Alan Gilbert’s scrappy valet service with the Radio France orchestra, all hustle, no shades of suggestion.

4 Messiaen’s Poèmes pour Mi are intimate odes to his first wife, whispered in her ear. Ms Fleming declaims. The orchestra blares. The listener begs for relief.

5 A new set of songs by Henri Dutileux fares better, thanks to the superior Orchestre National de France and Seiji Ozawa’s sense of shading. But Dutilleux is no writer for voice, dull and dutiful at best. Curiosity is not aroused.

6 Six different sound engineers are credited for the general acoustic murk. They were working from live performances in bad halls. They are not generally to blame. Decca should have dismissed the tapes as substandard. The executive producer was Ben Pateman. I guess he takes the rap.

7 Articulation. There is none. Just a blur of occasional syllables. Lucky they printed the words in the booklet.

8 The booklet article, in praise of Ms Fleming, announces that ‘all singing is story-telling’. There’s no story here.

9 The booklet comes in a fiddly folder and does not fit back.

10 It all gets worse on second hearing. Enjoy.

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Something more esoteric?

Modern Times
(BR Klassik)
****

Christian Immler sings Weimar-era ironies by Schreker, Korngold, Zemlinsky, Eisler and others, including my old friend Berthold Goldschmidt. A thoughtful compilation, every syllable clear as water, accompanied with delicate touch by Helmut Deutsch.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com





Martin Shaw: The Airmen
(Delphian)
****

Almost forgotten outside the Anglican church for which he wrote much liturgy, Martin Shaw (1875-1958) was a songwriter in the Vaughan Williams mode. This cycle, a bucolic reflection on two world wars, is put together by the pianist Iain Burnside and eloquently sung by Sophie Bevan, Andrew Kennedy and Roderick Williams. A real find.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com





Eighth Blackbird: Lonely Motel
(Cedille)
***

The composer Steve Mackey is on the way to inventing a new American cabaret. These songs are the inner meditations of a lovesick shrink with pastiche references to Dowland, Stravinsky and the Beatles. Much fun to be had (except by the shrink) and eight versatile musicians makes the most of it.

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February 26, 2012

Shostakovich: piano concertos 1 & 2
(Mariinsky Live)
****

The concertos date from either end of the composer’s span and are equal in neither temperament nor intent. The first was written for himself to play, the second for his son, Maxim. They are personal, intimate, riddled with coded references.

The first, in C minor, was written in 1933, just after he had finished his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsenk and before Stalin’s terror attack on it. Like the 24 preludes, its preceding work, it owes much to Bach and Stravinsky but also (as Leonid Gakkel points out in an exemplary programme note) to the long, brave adagio of Mahler’s third symphony.

The second, in F major, written 24 years later, appears on paper to be a textbook celebration of Soviet success, produced for the revolution’s 40th anniversary. Once again, however, the subtext points to Stravinsky and Mahlerian irony. What the commissars heard as glory is readily mistaken for scorn.

Neither is a virtuoso vehicle and, the composer apart, there is no pianist who has stamped these works decisively as his or her own. Denis Matsuev, a Siberian who made his name in Rachmaninov is perhaps the first to come close. He has recorded them before with Maris Jansons, Yuri Temirkanov and a degree of restraint. Here, Valery Gergiev lets him off the leash and Masuev, with dazzling lightness and rude flashes of wit, finds the layered contrasts in Shostakovich that add a puzzle-solving dimension to the pleasure of his performance. He follows with the sardonic fifth concerto by Rodion Shchedrin, dating from the post Soviet chaos of 1999. Gergiev’s Mariinsky Orchestra has trumpeter Timur Martynov in the opening work. Simply, the best yet.

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More Russian rep

Shostakovich: piano concertos 1&2
(harmonia mundi)
**

Unfair to compare, Alexander Melnikov plays the 2nd ahead of the 1st and interposes between them the late Shostakovich violin sonata, op 134, played with Isabelle Faust. Sprightly, but scarcely as penetrative as Matsuev. The Mahler Chamber Orchestra is conducted by Teodor Currentzis.

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Schnittke: 2nd piano concerto
(Crystal)
**

Epigrammatic and frankly weird, the concerto yields few rewards. The pianist (Maria Lettberg) plinks and bangs bravely away; the Berlin radio orchestra accompanies. More pleasing and mysterious are the piano quintet, quartet and trio, led by Ewa Kupiec.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.de





Shostakovich: viola sonata, op 147
(Champs Hill)
***

Rich and deeply felt account of his very last work by Krzystof Chorzelski and Katya Apekisheva; even the bleak pizzicati sound beautiful. The companion works are Britten’s Lachrymae and Schumann’s Märchenbilder.

>Buy this CD at Champs Hill







Sounds of Defiance
(Marquis)
***

Debut disc of violin sonatas by Shostakovich and Schnittke and smaller pieces by Achron and Pärt, persuasively presented by a youngng Canadian, Yevgeny Kutik, with something of Heifetz in his Achron tone. Timothy Bozarth accompanies.

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February 19, 2012

Debussy’s Claire de Lune
(Virgin)
*****

There are two powerful reasons to rush out and buy this CD. One is that no soprano in two generations has sung Debussy with such idiomatic charm, unforced power and casual, off-the-shoulder elegance as the effulgent Natalie Dessay. The other is the record cover, a design that breaks all recent rules of record marketing and takes you back to the Art Nouveau world in which these songs were written. It has a certain je ne sais quoi. There may be one or two extra reasons, and I’ll get to them if time and space permit.

But first, Miss Dessay who made her name internationally as an irresistible comedienne in Italian, French and German opera. It is eight years, reportedly, since she last gave a solo recital and she has never troubled to make a solo record with piano. She describes herself as actress first, singer second – a comedienne, in the French sense of the word.

Acting a role on stage and finding the core of a song cycle are two disciplines as different as football and chess. A considerable shift of mental focus is required to switch from one to the other. Miss Dessay, here, makes it sound effortless.

The songs are from Debussy’s student years in the 1880s, four of them unpublished. Varied and, to a degree, experimental, they demand the context and interpretation that can only come from intense preparation.

What they receive here are a rare blend of thoughtfulness and impulsivity from singer and pianist alike. Philippe Collard is never afraid to change colour in mid-phrase or drop dynamics to a searching pppp. Miss Dessay offers ceaseless challenge. There’s a harp, a mezzo in the chorus in two of the songs. Blink, and you’ll miss them, such is the private engagement of singer and pianist.

Favourites? I have a few, but the melismatic Rondel chinois in the middle of the album seems to be the pivot around which all else revolves – fantastical, wistful, desperately yearning, a composer on the threshold of a boundless imagination, two musicians who will stop at nothing.

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3 concerto CDs

Rubinstein 4/Rachmaninov 3
(Onyx)
**

A cool pairing by young pianist Joseph Moog; both concertos are in D minor. The 1860s Rubinstein comes first and soon runs out of ideas. Skip to the Rach and you’ll find that Moog is a skippy-fingered speed merchant, perhaps a little wanting in depth.

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Mozart ‘Jeunehomme’/Schumann
(Onyx)
***

A Rothschild Bank paid for this album. Soloist Sophie Pacini sounds like a good investment, showing fine aplomb in Schumann’s many crises and an apt playfulness in Mozart. Shame the bank couldn’t afford a better orchestra than Rheinland-Pfalz.

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Britten: violin, double
(Hyperion)
***

Very young Britten in a dreary sepia cover. The concerto for violin and viola is a student retrieval, dated 1932, while the violin concerto shares a wartime origin, 1940-1, with the Sinfonia da Requiem. Anthony Marwood and Lawrence Power offer intense precision and, for me, low charisma. Hear Ida Haendel and you’ll spot the difference.

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February 12, 2012

Poulenc: complete chamber works
(Champs Hill)
****

The twin virtues of this two-CD set are comprehensiveness and the kind of sonic clarity once expected from major labels but now the province of boutique studios like Champs Hill, presently under threat of forced sale. The musicianship is pretty terrific, too, in an understated way that suits Poulenc well.

Francis Poulenc, ‘part-monk, part-thug’ (in a friend’s estimation) never holds one pose for very long. His flickering attention span challenges players and listeners alike, especially in the sonatas for solo instrument and piano that comprise the first of these two discs. It takes a truly thoughtful oboist or flautist to make their sonatas sound heaven-sent. Members of the London Conchord Ensemble, accompanied by Julian Milford on piano, cannot be faulted for effort or expression. Occasionally, the line of argument is either too pretentious or just not strong enough to sustain the listener’s undivided interest. These sonatas need to be taken in single doses.

The second disc, however, is full of fun. No-one else has written a sonata for horn, trumpet and trombone and Poulenc gives it a boozy Saturday-night haziness that feels absolutely true to life. A Sarabande for solo guitar is defly rapt, while a dialogue of two clarinets achieves an intimacy rare in Poulenc, only to mock itself in the middle with snatches of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The biggest piece is a sextet, twice revised and full of Prokofiev allusions. You reach the end of Poulenc, never knowing who he really was. Top credits to Maya Koch (violin), Thomas Carroll (cello), Emily Pailthorpe (oboe), Daniel Pailthorpe (flute), Maximiliano Martin (clarinet) and sound engineers Alexander Van Ingen and Phil Rowlands for a tutti-frutti album.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical



Thre more chamber releases

A glut of Brahms

Clarinet trios
(ArtistLed)
****

Emerson Quartet cellist David Finckel and his wife Wu Han generally stock their self-op label with contemporary music. They relax here in early Beethoven and late Brahms trios with clarinettist David Shifrin, and sound positively indulgent in eight late, obscure pieces by Max Bruch: lovely record, stunning sound.

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Boulanger Trio
(Profil)
***

These three women from Berlin sound piano-heavy in the Brahms opus 101 and lugubrious in a Liszt transcription for trio of one of his travel pieces. The selling point here is Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, reduced from string sextet to piano trio by Eduard Steuermann and delivered with taut and tender intimacy by the Boulangers who, I feel sure, will strike a better balance in concert than in a Deutschlandradio studio. Next time, I’ll ant to hear them live.

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Brahms: Sinfonia in B
(Signum)
*

The Malmö conductor Joseph Swensen has orchestrated four early chamber works y Brahms, three of them with a prominent violin part. The textures sound anachronistic and the tempi mechanical. Swensen plays the solos, rather edgily. There is not much pleasure to be had here.

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February 5, 2012

John Cage: Complete piano music
(MDG)
****

Among John Cage’s multiple legacies, the piano looms largest. Bursting into music in California without the benefit or inhibition of a European tradition, Cage stuck nails and bits of wood between the strings of a concert grand to create a ‘prepared piano’, emitting quasi-oriental sounds of hypnotic fascination. That invention dates from 1940s Los Angeles, where the ungainly Cage was taking music lessons from the uncomprehending old-revolutionary, Arnold Schoenberg.

At the end of that decade, again at the piano, Cage introduced the young Europeans Boulez, Stockhausen and Berio at the Darmstadt summer school to new freedoms. In Music of Changes, he gave the performer a range of score options and left him or her to decide on the moment which should be played. In 4’33”, Cage sat a pianist at the keyboard with instructions to do nothing for four minutes and 33 seconds, encouraging the audience to appreciate the ambience.

The climax of his work for piano was Winter Music, written for ten pianos in 1957 and dedicated to the artists Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, followed by a 1958 piano concerto – after which he gave up the instrument for three decades. Cage, whose birth centenary falls this year, remains one of the most diverse and perplexing influences on western music in modern times, and not on music alone. His impact on dance, pop and the visual arts was equally impressive, and continues to grow two decades after his death. DJs who manipulate turntables in dark discos are unware that they do so courtesy of a 1938 Cage inspiration.

Steffen Schleiermacher, a German pianist and composer who poses for the camera between Californian cactuses on his album booklet, worked assiduously over five years to play all of Cage’s published work for piano, along with some that was considered unsuitable for publication. In tune with Cage’s outlook, he specifies that each recording ‘represents only one possible interpretation’ and the seriousness with which he approaches the work is tempered with a healthy measure of wit.

Too much, on 18CDs, to absorb in a month of Sundays, this box is an ideal dipper in which anyone can find curiosity, surprise and entertainment galore - from an early Music for Marcel Duchamp to a positively exhilarating 1989 meditation on the Beatles. Never have the musical depths of I Wanna Hold Your Hand been so brilliantly illuminated. Such a shame that John Lennon never lived to hear it.

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January 29, 2012

Bernard Herrmann: Film score for Jane Eyre, 1943
(Naxos)
****

Very few soundtracks grip the ear from the opening statement the way a symphony does, but this – Hermann’s fourth movie score and his longest – is utterly adhesive. Written between his first symphony and his opera Wuthering Heights, the late-romantic score borrows arias from the opera and applies them to instruments of the orchestra. The composer seems to possess complete mastery of his means.

The nerve-tingling bleakness of Herrmann’s Hitchcock movies lie far ahead. This is an unashamedly sentimental accompaniment to a 19th century love story. Mendelssohn and Wagner are much in evidence, with hints of Schumann and wisps of Mahler. There is even a marimba passage in the 7th track that could pass as a ringtone...

The Swiss conductor Adriano reconstructed Hermann’s original intentions miraculously from a third-generation of a photocopy and the results are fully worth the effort. The Slovak radio orchestra play with multi-layered responsivity. The performance was first issued in 1994 but has only now been made available on a mass label.

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Three Mahler CDs

First Symphony
(DG)
***

The Seoul Philharmonic play with filigree precision for Myung-Whun Chung and the opening shimmer is as beautiful as any. Too beautiful, in fact. Chung bypasses Mahler’s ironic intentions and goes for seductive literalism. It works as a reading, but fails to pique much curiosity.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.co.uk





Second Symphony
(Oehms)
**

Simone Young has delivered robust Brahms and Bruckner with her Hamburg orchestra. This Mahler performance cowers too much in their shadow. It is brisk, unfussy and cleanly played, but the edginess that is so vital to Mahler gets lost along the way. Michaela Kaune and Dagmar Peckova are the vocal soloists.

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Sixth Symphony
(Chestnut music)
****

This is a transcription for church organ and it’s by no means as bad as I feared. The thunderbox of St Katharinen Oppenheim would put the fear of God into all but the most Dawkins of unbelievers and its sonorous warning from history makes the opening passage almost unbearably terrifying. What’s more, there’s subtlety in David Briggs’s playing of the mighty beats. Much to my surprise, I loved it.

>Buy this CD at David-briggs.org









January 15, 2012

Witold Lutoslawski: Symphonic Variations &c
(Chandos)
*****

In the 18 years since his death, Lutoslawski’s music has fallen off the concert ad recording schedule. But 2013 sees the centenary of his birth and this Chandos series of the orchestral works just gets better and better.

On this, the third volume, you will find minor masterpieces from either end of the composer’s life. The Symphonic Variations date from his student years in 1936 and are both formally correct and fizzingly attractive, terrific little themes for solo instruments that the rest of the band can dance around.

The Variations on a Theme of Paganini were written under Nazi occupation, for four-hand performance with his friend Andrzej Panufnik in private homes and secret places. The orchestration was made in 1978 and the soloist, in this and the ensuing 1988 piano concerto, is the effervescent Louis Lortie.

The disc closes with Lutoslawski’s fourth and last symphony, premiered in Los Angeles a year before his death. It has one of the softest openings since Maher’s Ninth but there is no room for rancour or regret in Luto’s ultra-civilised language. The music politely opens a door and invites you into warm salon.

Such is the intensity of Edward Gardner’s interpretation and the virtuosity of the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s playing that previous recordings, including the composer’s own, are banished from memory while you listen – truly, a performance for our time.

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3 powerful Bach releases

Keyboard concertos
(Nimbus)
****

Not many pianists can make your listen to all five concertos as if for the first time. Well, Nick van Bloss can. Whatever alchemy he brings to the piano, and his life has been turbulent, Van Bloss finds a quiet certainty in Bach that few others match. David Parry conducts the English Chamber Orchestra.

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Suite #6
(ECM)
****

Miklos Perenyi sandwiches a robust reading of the sixth solo suite in between a warmly affecting performance of the third Benjamin Britten suite – more sweet-toned than its dedicatee, Rostropovich – and a growly organic account of the weird and haunting Gyorg Ligeti sonata, written in Hungary in 1948 and 1953 when the composer could but hint at his true intentions. An original, unmissable recital.

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Cantatas
(Decca)
****

When Andreas Scholl sings ‘ich hab genug’, you beg him to continue. The countertenor has never sounded so much in his element as in this selection of cantatas and arias with the Basle Chamber Orchestra. The soloist is projected a tad too far forward but otherwise the sound is Decca’s finest.

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January 8, 2012

Roberto Alagna: Pasión
(DG)
****

The tenor has reached a point in his life where he can do what he likes without apology. He no longer has to explain turbulent walkouts from La Scala or the Bastille, or the on-off switch in his marriage to Angela Gheorghiu. The world has to accept that this is what you get from Alagna, take it or leave it.

At 48, the voice is rich and rounded, doing its job without hint of stress whether in opera or in the more popular songs that he learned as a troubador in Paris clubs. This collection of South American songs was recorded in five different studios with a pick-up ensemble conducted by Yvan Cassar (who alternates as piano accompanist).

Episodic and populist, the album has its smoky moments, none smokier than 'Besame mucho'. More remarkably, it avoids the dumb-down tackiness of crossover with an inarguable artistic integrity. It is clear that Alagna has loved this material all his life and now sings it with greater comfort and flexibility than the Latino pop merchants. There’s nothing quite like hearing a great voice doing what it does best in down-to-earth everyday songs. Alagna, in Pasión, is on top of his game.

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More singers

Alexksandra Kurzak
(Decca)
***

A big new signing, the Polish soprano hits all the high spots in her debut disc of Italian opera hits from Mozart to Puccini. The voice is rich, warm and stress-free. Expression may come later, along with articulation (Kurzak has fewer consonants than Joan Sutherland). Conductor Omer Meir Wellber, another record debutant, gets a convincing sounds from the Valencia orchestra. If Kurzak takes off, as I think she will, this CD will be a collectors’ piece.

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Anu Komsi: Being Beauteous
(Alba)
*****

In peak form, the Finnish soprano has a bell-like top and unerring pitch accuracy. Both are of demonstration standard in this eclectic trawl of 20th century works by Britten (Les Illuminations – the best I’ve heard), Schoenberg, Castiglioni, Szymanowski and Henze, whose 1963 Being Beauteous gives the album its title. The conductors in these live performances are Sakari Oramo - Anu’s husband - and Juha Kangas, but the voice is central here – and often sensational. I’m falling in love with the Henze.

>Buy this CD at Alba Records





Hila Plitmann: The Ancient Question
(Sigma)
***

The Israeli soprano sings her own arrangement of five Yiddish songs, Lori Laitmann’s setting of some Terezin fragments, a slightly insipid set of Psalms by Aharon Harlap and, most effective of all, five Hebrew love songs by her husband, Eric Whitacre. Julian Bliss threatens to steal the show on clarinet, but there’s beauty in the voice and enough variety in the works to keep the ears attentive.

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Christiane Stotijn: Stimme der Sehnsucht
(Onyx)
****

The Dutch mezzo is a formidable Mahler singer and her Kindertotenlieder here are chillingly exquisite. More surprising, and no less satisfying, are the preceding sets of songs by Pfitzner and Richard Strauss. A marvellously intelligent recital. To be heard often, with an amber glass in hand.

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December 31, 2011

From Here On Out
(Analekta)
***

If this is where orchestral music is heading, I am intrigued enough to want to hear more – but not yet fully convinced. Nico Muhly opens with a title piece that deconstructs classical snippets in approved minimalist style, ending with a Mahlerian Das Lied fadeout.

Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead contributes the second piece, Popcorn Superhet Receiver, a BBC commission in microtones that simulates the sound language of Penderecki, though washes of Messiaen are never far from mind.

Muhly bounces back with Wish You Were Here, a jittery evocation of cartoon artists and the esoteric gamelan composer Colin McPhee. The final piece, For heart, breath and orchestra, is by Richard Reed Parry who creates sound ambiences for Arcade Fire and Bell Orchestre. An excess of pizzicato prevents the ear from settling on his ideas, which is a pity since there is a strong pulse to the work.

The program is the brainchild of Edwin Outwater, music director of the Kitchener Waterloo Symphony in Canada and I applaud his sense of adventure. But no amount of good intention can compensate for meagre substance. I shall expect more depth of content from Muhly, Greenwood and Parry next time round.

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A flush of young pianists

Beatrice Berret
(Centaur)
***

Schumann, like most wines, should not be tasted young. But the Swiss pianist avoids the usual pitfalls and gives serious attention to the three sonatas, with lovely tone and subtle wit. She’s 26 and a Menahem Pressler pupil. Definitely going places.

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Vladimir Sverdlov-Ashkenazy
(Piano Classics)
**

Nephew and half-namesake of a living legend, Sverdlov, 35, lays heavy, Soviet-trained hands on Musorgsky’s Pictures. Balakirev’s Islamey comes off lighter and four of his own compositions are nicely turned.

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Vittorio Forte
(Lyrinx)
***

More Schumann – the dangerous Fantasiestücke, played with nice restraint by a 34 year-old Italian. The poetry comes through, but there may be more compelling readings around.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.fr





Vanessa Benelli Mosell
(Brilliant)
***

She’s 24 and she’s not afraid of Prkofiev’s 7th sonata or Scriabin’s 1st. What’s more, the technique seems to match the ambition. These are very convincing readings, with some Liszt and Haydn in between. But why does the booklet announce her as ‘internationally recognised as one of the great virtuoso pianists’? Not yet, I fear.

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Jonas Vitaud
(Orchid)
****

31 years old, the Parisian prizewinner takes an agreeable debut stroll through the Brahms rhapsodies, intermezzi and fantasies. Late as most of these pieces are, Vitaud sees them all the better through a young man’s eyes – as Barenboim and Ashkenazy did almost half a century ago. Bookmark Vitaud: he is a pianist who is ripe and ready for the big time.

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December 18, 2011

Mare Nostrum
(Harmonia Mundi)
*****

How fitting that the first posthumous release for Montserrat Figueras should be a sumptuous album and multi-lingual text that celebrates the cradle of civilisation – ‘our sea’, the Mediterranean basin. From the beginning of her life with Jordi Savall and Hesperion XXI 40 years ago, Figueras showed a prescient interest in all the cultures that formed her native Spain – Christian, Jewish and Moslem, indigenous and invader.

Each was treated with seriousness and respect. Dialects were carefully studied, accents and emphases observed. Latin, Hebrew, Arabic, Greek, Turkish and Ladino tripped of her discs in illuminating co-existence. The process continues on this captivating release, which opens with a Sephardic rhapsody from Rhodes and ends with a Bulgarian dance and a contemporary improvisation, as if to say the cross-fertilisation has not ended.

What the Figueras voice lost in bloom down the years, it gained in depth and consolation. Most of the Arabic and Jewish microtones are sung with hypnotic devotion by Lior Elmaleh. Musicians from Israel and Palestine play side by side. Every single track challenges cultural preconceptions. This is the sort of album that you pray will never end.

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Four Late-rush Russian CDs

Rachmaninov: 1st piano sonata
(Etcetera)
***

Rising Dutchman Hannes Minnaar delivers Rachmaninov's with less than the usual morbidity, a hint of greater things to come. He refrains from adding a populist Prelude by way of sweetener, following up with restrained morceaux of Ravel. A talent to watch.

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Rachmaninov: 3rd symphony
(EMI)
****

British orchestras have never sounded so good in Russian as they do today. The LSO has Gergiev in charge, the LPO with Jurowsky, Birmingham with Nelson, Bournemouth with Katabits and, most penetrating of all, Liverpool with Vasily Petrenko. Astutely, Petrenko leaves the sombre third symphony to last on this disc, opening with an atmospheric Caprice bohemien and following with the ubiquitous Vocalise. The symphony itself unfolds as coherent narrative rather than episodic anecdotes, a thoroughly convincing account in splendid sound.

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Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Britten: cello sonatas
(Signum)
****

Jamie Walton is a conviction cellist, playing the music he feels is most timely rather than what the industry demands. These hree works make sense together but are hardly a commercial proposition. The 1934 D minor Shostakovich sonata is among the most affecting performances I have heard since Rostropovich died. The C major sonatas by Britten and Prokofiev have lower emotive traction, but the playing compensates with delicious little insights and evocations. Daniel Grimwood is the intuitive accompanist.

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Music of Vladimir Martynov
(Nonesuch)
**

The Russian pastiche composer, born 1946, yields a couple of essays for Kronos on Schubert’s C-major quartet and the Abschied from Mahler’s Song of the Earth. Opinions may vary, but I found no fresh insights into Mahler’s work, and therefore no reason to condense it.

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December 11, 2011

C P E Bach: piano concertos
(Hänssler)
****

Carl Philipp Emanuel, once considered the most gifted of Bach’s sons, has been eclipsed by Johann Christian, ‘the London Bach’ with his florid arias and Mozart influences, and even by the perplexing Wilhelm Friedemann, briefly a poster boy for the Nazis. So it’s good to settle down with three of Emanuel’s piano concertos, any of which is an excellent advertisement for his brilliance and wit, not to mention his acute professional judgement of audience tolerance. All they lack is inventive genius.

Think of the Haydn piano concertos and you will not be far off: music making of the highest proficiency and agreeability without the arresting mark of originality. Scholars detect faint anticipations of Beethoven’s G major piano concerto in Emanuel’s C major but they are too faint to be picked up by the naked ear. Michael Rische is the soloist with the excellent Leipzig Chamber Orchestra. And I'm delighted to add them to the list of worth-hearing-once piano concertos.

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Three seasonal CDs

John Rutter: The Colours of Christmas
(Decca)
**

Nobody does better out of Christmas than the English composer and arranger, John Rutter. His popular carol settings call to mind 1950s singing styles, round-the-fireplace, nothing to frighten the horses; the Bach Choir, RPO take the nostalgia trek on Decca, with Rutter conducting.

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The King’s Singers: Joy to the World
(Signum)
**

Classy barber-shop from different arrangers, including the inescapable Rutter's take on Silent Night. The Little Drummer Boy’s a lot better, but it’s no patch on Mahler's song.

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Songs of the Baltic Sea
(Delphian)
****

Frost and reindeers come to mind in the opening chords of this thrilling disc from the National Youth Choir of Great Britain (conductor Mike Brewer). The composers are Vaclovas Augustinas, Mindaugas Urbaitis, Peteris Palkidis, Galina Grigorjeva and Gabriel Jackson, and the singing – virile and angelic - will freeze your breath in mid-air. Perfect for the time of year.

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December 4, 2011

Caine: The Drummer Boy: Mahler
(Winter&Winter)
****

It’s nearly 20 years since a Mahlerian friend played me an Uri Caine interpretation down the phone and I had to be scraped off the walls in stupefaction. Uri, a jazz pianist and composer, takes Mahler’s music and bends it every which way with a varied ensemble in search of hidden messages. His most successful track, absent from highlights album, segues the farewell song of Das Lied von der Erde into the Ashkenazi-Jewish memorial prayer for the dead.

But there’s plenty here to stimulate and provoke. The extension of Caine’s Jewish thesis is found in the title track, where a cantor, DJ and small ensemble dance Chassidic and North African rings around an ostensibly German army song. Two songs from the Kindertotenlieder are given wildly unpredicted treatment. Polemics aside, there are moments of ethereal beauty and nagging might-have-been. If Mahler were living in 21st century New York, might he be going down this track? One way or another, I can’t get this disc off my playlist.

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Three starry Mozart CDs

Helene Grimaud
(DG)
****

The label makes a big fuss about this being Ms Grimaud’s first Mozart release. Given her growing interest in other genres, this may also be her last – which would be a pity, since she sets cracking tempi in two concertos, nos 19 and 23, and directs two arias by Mojica Erdmann in between. Ms Grimaud, who fell out with Claudio Abbado mid-summer, dispenses with a conductor, leading the chamber orchestra of Bavarian Radio from the keyboard. I especially liked her use of the Busoni cadenza in the second concerto.

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Claudio Abbado
(Decca)
***

The grand old man leads symphonies 39 and 40 with a dedicated Orchestra Mozart in a live recording from Bologna. Lively enough, but nothing like the hair-raising studio recordings he made of these symphonies as a young man with the LSO.

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Emerson Quartet
(Sony)
***

The Emersons have gone conservative on their new label, reverting to very classical rep with high panache and easy gestures. The three Prussian Quartets (K575, 689, 590) are exquisitely done, with frequent thematic nods to parallel works. All that’s missing is an edge of discovery. And the January sound at LeFrak Hall, Queens College, NY, is a bit on the brittle side. Da-Hong Seeto was producer and engineer.

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November 27, 2011

Kaija Saariaho: D’om le vrai sens
(Ondine)
***

The Finns say of Saariaho that she is the only French composer who writes Finnish. That is both cruel, and deadly accurate. Living in France for much of her adult life, the serene Saariaho has acquired an elegance that is alien to her origins, casting her into a stylistic no-man’s-land from which there is no visible exit. Not that she seems keen to leave. Much of Saariaho’s music, especially her operas, has a static quality that can, in the wrong hands, numb the listener to distraction. I have never been a fan.

But the present triptych of new works, written between 2006 and 2010, has melted my resistance. The title work is a clarinet concerto that performs enough Gershwin riffs and virtuosic tricks to command full attention for half an hour – and if you haven’t heard Kari Kriiku do his stuff, you must.

Laterna Magica is an impressionistic tribute to Ingmar Bergman – a kind of sound movie without pictures. Best of all is a short, fluttery set of four Leino Songs for very high voice, performed by Anu Komsi, whose husband Sakari Oramo, conducts. The sense of aptness – that this music could not be written any other way or for any different combination – is compelling. The sound, too, is impressive. That’s no small triumph for producer Laura Heikinheimo who had to record each work in a different hall.

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Three Bruckner symphonies

#1
(Oehms)
***

Forsaking my iron rule of never listening to a Bruckner symphony numbered lower than 3 (there are four of them), I was gripped by the energy and conviction of Simone Young’s First Symphony with the Hamburg Philharmonic. Any concentration lapses you might detect are the composer’s. The musicians give it all they’ve got, a little thin at the top of the strings but deeply satisfying in the adagio.

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#4
(LSO Live)
***

The first Bruckner I ever heard in concert was the ninth with the Concertgebouw orchestra, conducted by Bernard Haitink. In some sense, all others are judged by that sumptuous experience. Haitink goes for broader tempi nowadays, an avuncular interpretation closely in keeping with what we know of Bruckner’s character. The LSO brass are ablaze here but a recessed Barbican sound does the strings few favours and the recording loses the immediacy of a live concert.

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#6
(Oehms)
***

Salzburg’s Mozarteum Orchestra gets overshadowed at festival time by the world’s best. Founded by Mozart’s widow in 1841, its sound is well suited to Bruckner’s bucolic reflections: large, warm and with a hint of wildness. Ivor Bolton conducts a persuasive.

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November 20, 2011

Brahms: Piano concerto #1 in D minor
(ICA Classics)
****

Julius Katchen, an American in Paris, was the one to watch in the 1960s – a talent admired alike by Sviatoslav Richter and pop stars. He died in 1969, aged 42, before he could establish a foothold in the pantheon. Those who remember him do so mostly for Brahms. This London studio performance with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Rudolf Kempe is a good reminder of his exceptional gift.

Never gratuitously assertive, Katchen glides into the music like a seal into arctic water, leaving no doubt in the listener's mind that he is in his natural element. The lack of bombast in the opening movement is succeeded by an unintrusive tenderness in the adagio – thus far and no further – while the finale has all the fireworks it needs without ever sounding showy. The closest comparison that comes to mind on record is the British pianist Clifford Curzon, though Katchen is more athletic and slightly heavier in his touch. There’s an interview at the end of his disc in which he explains his approach. Before that, he plays a quirky Chopin ballade and other solo encores.

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More piano concertos

Busoni
(Naxos)
***

The biggest and toughest challenge for any pianist, with a man-sized orchestra and full men’s chorus. Roberto Cappello, a Busoni prize winner, makes a brave fist of it. He lacks John Ogdon’s reckless bravura, but he gets the mood right and the symphony orchestra of Rome give it all they’ve got.

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Maderna
(Naxos
****

The human face of the Boulez-Stockhausen brigade, Bruno Maderna did not know the meaning of forte. His two concertos, dated 1942 and 1948, are pre-avantgarde and utterly charming. The 1969 Quadrivium gently flutters and meanders. Aldo Orvieto is the pianist in these world premiere recordings.

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D’Indy: Symphonie sur un chant montagnard francais
(Pentatone)
**

A great avalanche of notes from pianist Martin Helmchen barely dents the surface of a monstrous piece of hokum by the least original of French composers. In my list of upland pastoral symphonies, this scrapes the barrel. The filler is Saint-Saens’s early second symphony, sweetly played by the Suisse Romande, under Marek Janowski.

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November 13, 2011

Berlioz: Harold in Italy &c.
(naïve)
*****

Berlioz is, for me, the point where period instruments lose their charm and descend into scratch and screech. The opening of this lavish disc from Marc Minkowski and Les Musiciens de Louvre-Grenoble proclaims otherwise. The ensemble is agreeably smooth and the entry of Antoine Tamestit’s viola is delicately managed. There are collisions along the way when the sound loses its sheen but travel in Italy was never easy going and it’s good to be reminded of the rigours of Berlioz’s day. The fat booklet is decorated with art photographs of the southwards drag.

Anne-Sofie von Otter takes the lead in Les nuits d’été. No longer the ice-clear bell of technical precision, she relaxes enough to let passion swell and ebb before setting free the two laments in the set with an air of one who has seen it all and is still appalled by the dread finality of life. There’s a bonus track from Damnation of Faust – a pertinent finale. No other record label could ever be mistaken for naïve, in its matching of content and image.

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Four Anglo-American mixes

Music for a Time of War
(Pentatone)
****

Carlos Kalmar has a good eye for a story. The Oregon conductor leads a performance of Ives’s The Unanswered Question, The Wound-Dresser by John Adams, Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem and the fourth symphony by Vaughan Williams – a truly apt and thoughtful selection (most would pick VW3 or VW5 as his war work), convincingly played a more-than-decent orchestra. These guys are going places.

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American Music/quatuor diotima
(naïve)
**

Less than the sum of its parts and with the most horrific classical cover of the year, the French-based quartet grapple with Reich’s Different Trains and Crumb’s Black Angels, with Samuel Barber’s ‘Adagio’ quartet as a smoothie filling. The miking is too close, the playing aggressive. Kronos still claim these works as their own.

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Simon Keenlyside – Songs of War
(Sony)
****

A fine contrast of rural peace and distant war, ranging from Butterworth to Kurt Weill, warily accompanied by Malcolm Martineau. Apart from a gruesome Ned Rorem stretcher-case (‘An Incident’), the selection is tasteful and often surprising. Keenlyside has the admirable knack of never making more of a song than it needs.

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Phoenix
(Champs Hill Records)
***

When was the last time I sat down to an oboe concerto? Emily Pailthorpe plays the well-known Vaughan Williams and the quite-new Paul Patterson, titled Phoenix. Her tone is seductive and the orchestral sound serene. There’s a new instrumentation of the Herbert.

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November 7, 2011

Beethoven: Complete Symphonies
(Decca)
*****

A symphonic cycle is as different from a single concert as training for a 100-metre dash is from running a marathon. The eye must maintain a constant dual focus: on the next milestone and simultaneously on the overarching structure of the race. There can be no short cuts, no shoulder slumps. The tension has to be high from start to finish.

Riccardo Chailly’s approach to Beethoven is faultless on both fronts. Using early editions and adhering to a Leipzig tradition that dates from Felix Mendelssohn’s 1840s spell as Gewandhaus conductor, Chailly sets a cracking pace that has both tactical and strategic validity. Compelling details emerge from the progress of each symphony and, at the same time, the overall span is cohesive and thrilling.

Contrary to contemporary fashion, Chailly does not regard Beethoven of the first two symphonies as an extension of Haydn and Mozart but as a breakaway, a radical new voice who sets out to shock at every turn. The Eroica, revolutionary by intent, sounds abrasive at first impact, a calculated device that intensifies the pathos of its ensuing funeral march.

Placing the Coriolan overture on the third disc ahead of the fifth symphony deprives that terse opening of its shock value and the Pastoral, later on, is a little under-coloured. But the seventh symphony is majestic, the eight exciting and the ninth overwhelming. Unusually for these cheapskate times, the performances are not live. They were recorded in an empty Gewandhaus hall and the absence of audience only adds to the listener’s private concentration.

This is, pace Rattle and Abbado, the first major Beethoven cycle of the 21st century. Chailly allies a Solti-like hard drive to an Abbado sleekness and a fearless Klemperer independence in his midlife mastery of these works. Among recent sets, only Zinman in Zurich is so assured, but at key junctures – opening the Eroica finale – Chailly gets an explosive attack from players of the highest calibre to hit the finishing line with a massive flourish. Record of the Year? Certainly a front-runner.

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Four Russian CDs

Tchaikovsky: 2nd symphony
(Onyx)
***

Evidence of Kirill Karabits’s success with the Bournemouth SO can be heard in his slow solos, trusting individual players to deliver clean, impressive openings. The ‘Little Russian’ Symphony is thoroughly enjoyable. The rest of the disc is taken up with Musorgsky showpieces – Pictures and Night in the Bare Mountain – that do no more than confirm the partnership’s quality.

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Shostakovich: 9th and 12th symphonies
(Naxos)
**

The fifth instalment in Vasily Petrenko’s cycle with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic lacks the traction and pathos of its predecessors. The playing is high class and the sound adequate, but both symphonies feel constricted – as if the conductor and musicians have not fully decided how late-Mahlerian the 6th should sound and how propagandist the 12th, titled ‘The Year 1917’. Neeme Järvi on DG and Mariss Jansons get this symphony bang to rights.

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Shostakovich: New Babylon
(Naxos)
***

The first complete recording, on two CDs, on the 1929 film score has more than curiosity value. It affords a rare glimpse of the composer as a youthful mischief, before Stalin and the system contrived to crush his spirit. Too much rom-pom for concentrated listening, but a necessary addition to my shelf.

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Shostakovich: string quartets 5-8
(Cedille)
****

The Pacifica Quartet, recorded in a Midwest winter, bring an authentic bleakness to the middle quartets, written at a time when the composer lived in fear of arrest and death. The miking, though, is intrusive. If you want a US quartet in these works it’s a choice between too-smooth Emerson or too-close Pacifica. There’s a lovely end-bonus of Miaskovsky’s 13th quartet in A minor.

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October 31, 2011

Charles Ives: Four sonata
(Deutsche Grammophon)
*****

The essence of Ives is the achievement of surprise. Knowing that the millionaire insurance magnate is prone to throw in corny bits of folkore, players need to numb their anticipation and the audience’s to ensure that each piece of hokum hits the ears completely unexpected.

Like Mahler, Ives interjected ambient sounds for ambiguous, unexplained purposes. Penetrating his quirky mind is never easy and there is a temptation to dismiss his devices as simple-minded. The triumph of this performance lies in its acknowledgement of Ives as a giant of American culture. Hilary Hahn, the violinist, might be expected take this view, but she has to convince Valentina Lisitsa, her ex-Ukrainian pianist, and their argument through the recital is as open-minded as an old-fashioned town meeting.

The four sonatas, virtually unplayed, date from 1903-16, the age of innocence before the US entered the First World War. Yet there nothing innocent about the music. A simple country tune can take a cynical business twist. An amiable conversation turns a sinister. Even the patriotism contains hints of melancholic irony. Ives tried in vain to get Mahler to perform his music; he might well have found personal affinities in the last of these sonatas, ‘Children’s Day at the Camp Meeting’.

Hahn is at her most confident and thrilling in this recital, while Lisitsa, already the most popular pianist on Youtube, is a soloist waiting to soar. Music as interesting as this should never have lain neglected. DG’s release, mysteriously delayed in Europe until the New Year, has all the hallmarks of a legendary record.

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Stephen Hough: Liszt and Grieg concertos
(Hyperion)
****

For his 50th birthday, the busy English pianist and composer has recorded the Grieg concerto in its native Bergen, along with both of the Liszts. Daunted, perhaps, by the location, Hough sounds more relaxed in the expat Liszt – but that’s a minor cavil. All three performances are exquisitely sololoquised and beautifully accompanied by Andrew Litton’s Bergen Philharmonic.

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Stephen Hough: Broken Branches
(EMI)
**

The pianist-as-composer shows an excessive fondness for bassoon and contrabassoon. Pick of a mixed pack of chamber music is a quasi-concerto for the cellist, Stephen Isserlis, more a private meditation than a public showpiece.

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Jorge Luis Prats: Live in Zaragoza
(Decca)
****

Hailed as the next Jorge Bolet, Prats is a Cuban in his 50s who wowed Spain on tour with suggestively rhythmic performances of Granados, Villa-Lobos and Lecuona. This is his major-label debut and the sound clarity is quite angelic. He sounds like a deep-freeze master from a former time, a classical version of the Buena Vista Social Club.

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October 23, 2011

The Liszt Project
(Deutsche Grammophon)
*****

Here, for once, is a concept album that works. Pierre-Lairent Aimard opens with an exquisitely shaped account of Liszt’s La lugubre gondola, every morose wavelet lapping against the ear. Aimard then moves into Wagner’s almost unknown A-major sonata for Mathilde Wesendonck, followed by another flutter of Liszt. Next up is the nail-breaking opus one sonata by Alban Berg, Scriabin’s Black Mass ninth sonata and, finally, a truly virile performance of Liszt’s great B minor sonata, making a perfect circumference – a journey with and around Liszt and those he touched and formed.

The second disc exercises the same refined discrimination. You might expect to find Bartók in the mix but not, perhaps, the early piece Nénie that takes off on a Lisztian rhythm from the Années de Pélerinage. Ravel is there, and Messiaen, obligatory for a Frech pianist, but in the middle of the recital there’s a skittish mantra by Marco Stroppa, a gritty modernism rooted in dark antiquity. Every single piece here has its place and each and every one of them makes you think again about the adjacent works. It’s a brilliant act of programming – and of sympathetic record production. Take a bow, DG Executive Producer Dr Alexander Buhr. Liszt himself would have grasped this concept.

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Two more Liszt CDs

Piano concertos 2 & 1
(Deutsche Grammophon)
****

Played in reverse order by Daniel Barenboim, with Pierre Boulez conducting the Berlin Staatskapelle, this is a high-profile event for the Liszt bicentennial. It is a commanding performance, at time over-vigorous, full of verve and excitement, lacking only a space for private contemplation. For a more reflective approach, go to Sviatoslav Richter’s intense self-immersion, or to the young Martha Argerich.

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Lieder
(EMI)
****

Helmut Deutsch’s piano introductions provide soprano Diana Damrau with a secure yet flexible foundation for these deceptively simple songs. At times, as she substitutes emotion for intellectual exploration, you wonder if they are even deceptive. But Damrau gives each song its due and each a different hue, before she lets rip with a climactic O Lieb. Lovely. Best Liszt singsong of the bicentennial.

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October 16, 2011

Shuffle, Play, Listen
(Oxingale)
****

It’s a terrible title for some terrific music. Cellist Matt Haimovitz and pianist Christopher O’Riley have eclectic tastes that they’d like to share. Take a suite from Bernard Herrmann’s music for Hitchcock’s movie Vertigo and intersperse its episodes with vaguely related pieces by Stravinsky, Martinu, Janacek and Piazzolla. That’s the first disc, and it’s a blinder.

The second is even better – a set of O’Riley arrangements of recent rock numbers and some jazz, going from Arcade Fire’s Empty Room (2011) back to Radiohead’s magical Pyramid Song and fast-forward to the same group’s Weird Fishes (2007). Known to me or unknown, it’s compelling stuff, sitting perfectly on the two instruments. The oldest it gets is a 1971 Dance of Maya by John McLaughlin.

I can’t wait to play this CD to people a third of my age and set them guessing where it’s from. The categories are irrelevant. This is good music, fabulously played. I can see where they are coming from with the title, but it gives no sense of the content. This could well be the coolest classical disc of the year.

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Three Mahler CDs

3rd symphony
(Tudor)
*

The concluding segment of Jonathan Nott’s cycle will impress those who think Mahler should sound like Bruckner, an irony-free zone. The Bamberg playing is clean and the contralto soloist, Mihoko Fujimara, beautiful. But the approach is, to my mind, completely wrong-headed, designed for a Bavarian bourgeoisie.

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6th symphony
(EMI)
**

Antonio Pappano so rarely puts a foot wrong that it’s upsetting to find that his live account of the bleak monster fails to grip. The savagery is missing in the opening allegro energico and somehow muted in the finale. It may be that the Santa Cecilia orchestra cannot play other than lovely. There’s no date on my advance copy but it must have been recorded in the Roman winter: there are constant coughs in the hall.

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Lieder
(Bis)
****

Katarina Karneus is perfectly cast for the Gesellen, Rückert and Kindertoten Lieder, holding the line with just the right gloss of vibrato. More unexpected, the post-modern conductor Susanna Mälkki turns out to have the right pulse for Mahler and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra show why they are still the best in the Baltic. Ich bin der Welt gets an exemplary performance.

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October 10, 2011

Brahms: Piano concerto #1 in D minor
(MDG)
***

Both the soloist and conductor are new to me – and so is the concept. Hardy Rittner plays an Erard piano dated 1854 and Werner Ehrhardt conducts l’arte del mondo on instruments of Brahms’s period. Their abrasiveness when the going gets tough gives an immediate, inimitable idea of how revolutionary the young Brahms must have sounded to audiences of his time.

The D minor concerto began life as a sonata for two pianos and developed into a near- symphony. Brahms himself played the 1859 premiere in Hannover, Joseph Joachim conducting, and the second performance in Leipzig the following year was decidedly unpopular with a public raised on Bach and Mendelssohn. The clattery response of the Erard keys under the weight of Brahms’s demands must have sent many Leipzigers home with a not-tonight headache and a quick sniff at the laudanum salts.

Ehrhardt has a fine feel for the structure of and Rittner rattles away with great vim and vigour. This is not a performance you would want to hear often, but you should certainly hear it once. A bonus op 119 intermezzo restores the Erard to something like its intended working order.

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Three more concerto CDs

Stanford: cello concerto &c
(Hyperion)
***

Sir Charles Villiers Stanford was the very model of a late-Victorian composer, with just enough of an Irish twinkle to mitigate the pomp and circumstance. You have to wait for the adagio of his concerto before the twinkle kicks in. Gemma Rosefield, in her debut commercial recording, plays the piece beautifully and for rather more than it’s worth. She does not reap full reward until the final track – an Irish Rhapsody. The BBC Scottish accompany under Andrew Manze.

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Nicola Benedetti: Italia
(Decca)
*

Demoted from DG to Decca, the hot Scot fiddler in a sun-faded cover photo plays Vivaldi, Tartini and Veracini without a smidgeon of passion and in truly blodgy sound. Andrew Walton was the engineer. Dolce & Gabbana got her dressed. What else do you need to know?

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Tchaikovsky: violin concerto; Bartok, 2nd concerto
(Virgin)
***

Valeriy Sokolov is a talent to watch, though perhaps more in 20th century rep than 19th. He plays the Tchaik perfectly well and without touching the sides. In Bartok he adds a laser of analytical clarity to an often misjudged piece. David Zinman conducts the Zurich Tonhalle.

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October 2, 2011

Mozart: piano concertos 6, 8, 9
(Hyperion)
****

The Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt, vastly popular in Bach, opens a cycle of the 27 Mozart concertos in an unlikely location, at the wrong time of year and with an offbeat orchestra. The venue is Toblach in the Italian Dolomites, where Mahler spent his last three summers, it’s knee-deep in skis and the ensemble is a chamber group from Mantua, little known beyond national borders.

Hewitt plays a Fazioli and the orchestra, led by Carlo Fabiano from the concertmaster’s chair, strikes a crisp balance between period practice and modern instruments – altogether a very pleasing sound. The three concertos, from Mozart’s early twenties, are the foundation of the cycle – a statement of intent.

The 9th, known as the Jeunehomme, is the only one to get regular play, but the other two are hardly inferior in ideas or spirit. Hewitt brings a gravitas to the concertos that recalls something of the approach of Arthur Schnabel, who was the first to revive them in modern times. It offers an invigorating contrast to the wanton athleticism and occasional flippancy of younger interpreters and suggests that Hewitt may be on the threshold of an adventure of real importance. I wonder which concerto’s next.

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Three solo Beethoven CDs

Alice Sara Ott
(Deutsche Grammophon)
***

DG’s rising star is over-impetuous in opus 2/3, utterly compelling in the Waldstein sonata and thrillingly reckless in the Rage over a Lost Penny. High-class playing with a contemporary touch.

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Frédéric D’Oria Nicolas
(Fondamenta)
***

Moscow-trained Nicolas, new to me, traces a line on this album from Beethoven’s midlife Waldstein Sonata, through one of Liszt’s peregrinations to a transcription of Wagner’s Tannhäuser and a Busono Adagio from Bach. His thoughtful concept is matched by flawless playing, full of character and changing colour.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com





Sarah Beth Briggs
(Semaphore)
***

A child finalist in the BBC Young Musician of the Year, Briggs has grown into a thoughtful, determinedly old-fashioned interpreters of the core classics. Her account of the op 110 sonata is rooted unfashionably in the world of Mozart and Haydn. The 32 Variations in C minor are even more conservatively conceived. Yet, unflashy as her playing might seem, there is no mistaking the passion.

>Buy this CD at Europadisc









September 25, 2011

Schubert: C and D major sonatas, D840, D850
(Onyx)
****

For most of my adult life, Alfred Brendel was considered the last word in Schubert, dominating the landscape with his outstanding series on Philips Records. Others – Uchida, Andsnes, Lupu – have occupied the vacuum since his retirement in different ways. But Brendel had an unmissable authority in this deceptively simple music, an assertion that it could be played his way and no other.

Shai Wosner, an Israel-born New Yorker, is the first since Brendel to announce a similar, monolithic assurance. Listening to him in the two big sonatas of 1825, both in a major key and both capable of being played by a competent amateur, I am struck on several hearings by Wosner’s absolute conviction in the literal expression of the notes and the structural soundness of the works. The literalism can lack suggestive subtlety, as it often did in Brendel, but it is a rock on which any listener can build a lifelong understanding of Schubert.

Between the two sonatas, Wosner gives a skittish account of six German dances and a Hungarian melody, none taken too seriously. The recording, made at Wyastone Leys, yields exemplary Steinway sound. Simon Kiln produced. One of the revelations of 2011.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com



Four CDs of Anglo-American song

Sing Freedom!
(Harmonia Mundi)
***

Craig Hella Johnson and Conspirare work through the songbook of Afro-American spirituals with sumptuous renditions of such indelibles as Motherless Child and A City Called Heaven. Too sumptuous, at times. The harmony is over-contrived, pitch-perfect. An occasional raggedness would have made the recital more exciting.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com





Sarah Connolly: My True Love Hath My Heart
(Chandos)
****

A lovely big mezzo reading of modern settings by Britten, Howells, Gurney and more, with unassertive accompaniment by Malcolm Martineau. A sarcastic Richard Rodney Bennett set rounds off the show.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical





Bejun Mehta: Down by the Salley Gardens
(Harmonia Mundi)
***

Some of the same songs as Connolly, but in a luscious counter-tenor. The reservation, for me, is an excess of vibrato, making the delivery a trifle too precious.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com





Richard Lewis: The Great Welsh Tenor
(Regis)
****

A Handel and Mahler pioneer of the 1950s, Lewis has an almost Victorian manner of singing but is stunningly effective in All Through the Night and O Waly Waly. Malcolm Sargent and Charles Mackerras conduct.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com









September 18, 2011

Mahler: 9th symphony
(LSO Live)
****

Valery Gergiev’s live performance of the ninth brings to an end one of the more daring cycles of recent years. Taken from two live concerts with a conductor who never performs the same way twice, the project left little room for edits or correction. Producer James Mallinson excised any trace of an audience, miking closely to the strings and achieving something close to a studio ambience – no small feat in the ungracious Barbican acoustic. The London Symphony Orchestra sound a little over-bright, but that’s how they often play.

Following Gergiev’s interpretation is never easy, since he is prone to change line like a London Underground commuter. The opening movement lacks the air of resignation that gives the subsequent resistance its force of surprise. Gergiev goes for something more ominous, then turns it wilder in the middle movements, letting brass and winds off leash to roar and shriek at fate. The finale finds a measure of consolation, though never the quietude of acceptance.

There is a disturbing quality to the performance, as there is to much of what Gergiev does, but I’d rather be unsettled than lulled by the synthetic resolution of Haitink or Nott. The LSO Live Mahler cycle leaves more questions than it answers, which is just as the composer intended.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com



Three rising soloists

Charlie Siem
(Warner)
***

A male model who does gigs in Apples stores is what you may have read about the Anglo-Norwegian Charlie Siem. Ignore it. The boy can play. He takes the Bruch concerto at a scary lick and the the Wieniawski as a piece of cake. A cantabile doloroso by the Nordic virtuoso Ole Bull is the surprise bonus. The LSO accompany efficiently, under Andrew Gourlay.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com





Alexandre Tharaud
(Virgin)
****

Having recently heard a recording of Richter in the Bach keyboard concertos, I decided to give them a rest for a year – but the French temptation proved irresistible. Fast, frank and totally introspective, Tharaud is a runaway train with Les Violons du Roy in hot pursuit. When he slows, the world goes backwards. Irresistible? Pretty much.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com





Javier Periane
(Harmonia Mundi)
****

The Spanish pianist brings out the Moorish tinge of Manuel De Falla in a beautifully planned recital of solo pieces with Nights in the Garden of Spain as its centrepiece (BBC Symphony Orch, conducted by Josep Pons). Hearing the Nights in this context, rather than sandwiched between overture and symphony, feels acutely authentic and Perianes finds a tone that is precisely fit for purpose. A near-perfect project.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com









September 11, 2011

Mieczyslaw Weinberg: symphonies, vols 1 & 2
(Neos)
****

No composer was closer to Shostakovich in terms of physical proximity, outlook and spirit than his next-door neighbour Moisei Vainberg (the name has several spellings). A musician who fled Warsaw when the Nazis arrived, Weinberg became a victim of Stalin’s persecutions after his father-in-law, Solomon Mikhoels, was murdered on the dictators orders. Shostakovich offered him moral and practical support during his jail time and unquestioning friendship thereafter.

There are 27 Weinberg symphonies and 17 string quartets. His Holocaust opera, The Passenger, will be staged this month at English National Opera. Where to begin? The 1948 Sinfonietta on the opening disc of Neos’s new Weinberg Edition is a classic piece of deception – happy-happy on the surface, deeply troubled underneath. Its companion piece, the choral 6th symphony of 1963, ripples with Jewish motifs – including a reckless khasneh-tanz Allegro molto. Finding a path through the composer’s contradictions is a process that is only just beginning.

The 17th symphony of 1984 opens a triptych of war memories, restless and unresolved. It is dedicated to Vladimir Fedoseyev, who conducts the Vienna Symphony Orchestra with crisp determination. Weinberg is beyond question an historic composer; how important he may be cannot yet be determined.

The fillers on the record are the gripping Mallet Quartet and Dance Patterns.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical



Three new-music concerto CDs

Rihm, Penderecki, Currier
(Deutsche Grammophon)
***

Wolfgang Rihm’s Light Games is a glorious seduction of the ear, low pitched and languorous. Anne-Sophie Mutter never overplays it and the New York Philharmonic are tautly subdued by Michael Francis’s baton. Pieces by Penderecki and Rihm for violin and double-bass sound larger than life with Roman Patkolo as partner virtuoso. Less compelling is Sebastian Currier’s hurry-scurry Time Machines, conducted by Alan Gilbert and premiered three months ago. Its movements are short enough not to pall, but little of it lingers in the ear.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com





Grazyna Bacewicz: violin concertos 2, 4 and 5
(Chandos)
***

Barely known outside Poland, these three Stalin-era works are among the composer’s more emollient works. Soft-edged Bacewicz is not quite the real deal, but Joanna Kurkowicz plays with zest and the Polish radio orchestra are terrific. Lukasz Borowicz conducts.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical





Armenian Rhapsody
(Bis)
***

Name an Armenian composer other than Khachaturian. Well, there’s Suren Zakarian and Vache Sharafyan, both of whom wrote for cello and chamber orchestra in recent years. The mood is not cheerful and sometimes downright lachrymose, but Alexander Chaushian takes to it like mother’s milk, as do the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical









September 4, 2011

Steve Reich 9/11
(Nonesuch)
***

There are risks in repeating a masterpiece. From the rough-string opening rhythms and the speech fragments of this ambitious new work, Reich refuses to disguise its origins in Different Trains, his twin-track account of Holocaust memoir and childhood alienation. The bits of speech are taken from 9/11 air traffic control logs on 9/11 and from survivor recollections. The effect is too close for comfort. It feels intrusive.

Reich himself suffered grave anxiety on 9/11, fearing that his family had been trapped in an apartment opposite the falling towers. He had a powerful personal reason for writing this piece. But where, in Distant Trains, his documentary detachment deepened the emotional impact, here the layering of recent memory becomes part history lesson, part bio-doc. It may be that Different Trains was so original that it put the methodology out of use for a generation. Or it may be that Reich, revisiting his masterpiece, could do no better than repeat himself. The piece, I am told, is being warmly received on a Kronos tour. Perhaps it needs to be sampled live.

The fillers on the record are the gripping Mallet Quartet and Dance Patterns.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com



Four Mozart CDs

Requiem
(Coro)
**

A fierce performance from Harry Christophers and the Handel and Haydn Society and elite soloists is marred by in-your-face recording. Eric Owens is the mighty bass.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com





Horn concertos
(DG)
***

Alessio Allegrini, ex-#1 horn at La Scala and Berlin Philharmonic, is the suave, purposeful soloist, Claudio Abbado conducts the Mozart Orchestra. Both seek hidden depths in the music where there are none. Dennis Brain and Karajan, it ain’t.

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Clarinet concerto, quintet
(Berlin Classics)
****

Benny Goodman made this coupling famous on record – and he didn’t play the basset, as Sharon Kam does. The Haydn Philharmonie sound a bit period-abrasive, but the clarinet tone is deliciously liquid in the concerti and tenderly intimate in the quintet. As pleasing as any account I have heard in years.

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String quartets KV 421, 138, 465
(EMI)
****

The Ebène Quartet are so tight-knit that Mozart flows off their bridges almost too easily. In these three works, the Dissonance Quartet gets the most out of them.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical









August 28, 2011

Martinu: Piano Recital and Drawings
(EMI)
****

Bohuslav Martinu has dropped so far below the radar that he has lost parity with such compatriots as Janacek, Suk and Smetana. A victim of fluctuating fashions, he is a composer of great elegance, constant invention and, sometimes, excessive serenity. Too many opus numbers – more than 400 – make it hard for musicians to present him with any expectation of public familiarity, even in his own country. Much of his work is left to gather dust.

This project by the Czech pianist Michal Masek - is a double discovery, a retrieval of largely unplayed piano music along with some of Martinu’s humourous sketches and concert-stage drawings. There is wit and warmth in both art forms. A piano turns in one sketch into a roaring bear, threate ning to crush the red-faced performer. One set of piano pieces is called Butterflies and Birds of Paradise. The sounds are enchanting, realistic, yet never banal. Another is a victory march for his local sports club, utilitarian yet attention compelling.

Masek plays with quiet intensity, sanitised of the sentiment that Rudolf Firkusny, the foremost Martinu interpreter, was prone to indulge. The longer you listen, the more you want to hear. The record, produced by EMI’s Czech division, may be hard to find in some countries; a website - http://www.masek-martinu.com/ illuminates its content. You won’t be disappointed.

>Buy this CD at cdmusic.cz



Three more Czechs and balances

Martinu: the six symphonies
(Onyx)
***

Jiri Belohlavek’s second recording of the Martinu symphonies is lower in voltage than the first, done for Chandos with the Czech Philharmonic. The BBC Symphony Orchestra struggle with irregular accents and miss the drama of the three post-war symphonies. On the other hand, some of the happier moments have a lighter, more infectious feel to them.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com





Czech string quartets
(Sacconi)
**

Josef Suk’s Meditation on an Old Czech Hymn is the treasure here; Smetana’s first and Dvorak’s 12th are finely played by the Sacconi quartet, though not always fiercely enough.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical





Czech music for strings
(Chandos)
***

The Janacek chamber orchestra play a somewhat superfluous arrangement of the composer’s second string quartet. An expansion of Martinu’s sextet is scarcely more convincing. But an early Janacek suite and a study for string orchestra by Pavel Haas are gripping.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com









August 21, 2011

Brahms: viola sonatas, op. 120
(Avi-music)
****

Among the last works to leave Brahms’s desk, these duo sonatas were written for the principal clarinet of Hans von Bülow’s orchestra and then adapted by the composer for just-as-smooth viola and piano. Summery and elegiac, composed in the imperial spa of Bad Ischl, the music is replete with ease. One note leads inexorably into the next without ever seeming either predictable or uninspired. The gently sighing second movement of the first sonata – allegro, with a touch of adagio – suggests a man amply in harmony with with his world.

Recordings of these masterpieces are surprisingly infrequent. A benchmark release by Pinchas Zukerman with Daniel Barenboim at the piano has been a first choice for nigh on four decades, outlasting challenges from Yuri Bashmet, Maxim Rysanov, Lawrence Power and more.

On record, the star viola tends to overpower the piano. Here. However, Rachel Roberts, former principal viola of the Philharmonia Orchestra in London, balances her sound serenely against Lars Vogt’s ripple effects on the piano. She plays plays a modern instrument by Peter Greiner and there is so little ostentation about their performance that it feels like an eavesdropped conversation, intriguing and at times oblique. Rather than play the two sonatas back to back, they are separated here – irrelevantly– by Schumann’s Märchenbilder, but that’s a small quibble for such an engaging act of music making.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical



3 piano CDs

Prokofiev: 5 piano sonatas
(Avie)
***

Alexandra Silocea, a Rumanian, is one to watch. She surmounts Prokofiev’s fiendish tricks at high speed without shredding the piano to matchsticks, often finding a tenderness that eludes flashier interpreters. I like her style, especially in the early works. The C major Op 135 is a little too jaunty for my taste.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com





Chopin, Xiaogang Ye, Qigang Chen
(Tudor)
***

The Chinese award winner Xiaotang Tan makes an unusual coupling of competition pleasers with two living compatriots. His Chopin is limpid and athletic in appropriate measure and his local delicacies are steeped in Messiaen-isms. We should hear more of him, and them.

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British piano music
(MDG)
***

When a German pianist offers contemporary stuff from my own backyard that I’ve never heard before, I sit up and say thankyou. Steffen Schleiermacher plays some striking post-minimalisms by Howard Skempton and Michael Finnissy, but the ear-prickers are tributary works of contemplative depth by Richard Emsley and Laurence Crane, endlessly fascinating.

>Buy this CD at ArkivMusic.com









August 14, 2011

Debussy: La Mer; Ravel: Ma Mère l’Oye
(Deutsche Grammophon)
****

The first Asian orchestra ever to win a major-label contract does itself proud in this debut disc, released as it arrives to play at the Edinburgh Festival. The Seoul Philharmonic is, so far as one can tell on first hearing, an orchestra without weak spots. The strings are lithe and full-bodied, the winds full of character and the brass rich and warm. I trust Michael Fine as producer and editor as my guarantee that no digital fakery went into this production. Under his guidance, the SPO have signed a massive 10-disc deal with DG.

Myung-Whun Chung, the music director, knows French repertoire inside out from his stormy spell at the Paris Opéra in the early 1990s. He interprets the art without added sugar. Debussy’s brute egotism is clearly glimpsed behind clouds of beauty and his armchair orientalism is given real bite and pungency by Korean woodwinds. Ravel’s Mother Goose is recounted less as bedtime story than as psycho-magic realism: there’s a beast hiding in your fairy garden, go deal with it. The showcase album is capped by an account of La Valse that seems to emerge from nebulous dawn, swirling ever faster to mutual self-destruction.

The performances are so distinctive, so explicitly articulated, that comparison with past legends is redundant. Whether your tastes in these obsessively over-wrought scores lie with Monteux, Beecham, Karajan or Boulez, you do need to hear Chung and his champion ensemble to find, perhaps, a different perspective.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com



3 chamber music CDs

Emanuel Ensemble
(Champs Hill)
****

Ever heard Nikolai Kapustin’s jazzy trio for flute, cello and piano? Me neither, and it’s a cracker. There’s more here by Gaubert, Schumann, Borne, Farrenc and Piazzola from three young English players, edgy, offbeat and fun-loving. The Schumann Adagio and Allegro is a quiet corner at this party, raptly played.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com





French string trios
(Crystal Classics)
**

The Streichtrio Berlin are accomplished players but too high in the brow for the fripperies of Jolivet, Milhaud and Francaix. A deathbed Roussel trio is the pick of an unsmiling compilation.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.co.uk





Brahms: complete works for violin and piano
(PentaTone)
***

Arabella Steinbacher is faultless in German romantics; she is flawlessly recorded with pianist Robert Kulek on this Dutch label. They sound, at allegro pace, a little risk averse but those who turn to Brahms for comfort and consolation will relish this immaculate set of the three sonatas and FAE scherzo.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com









July 31, 2011

Klaus Tennstedt: The complete Mahler symphonies *****
Klaus Tennstedt: The great EMI recording ****

Tennstedt was the most inspirational Mahler conductor of my time, a musician who interpreted by instinct and whose responses were never conventional. A nightmare for record producers, he fiercely resisted interference in studio. In concert, he took risks that few others would countenance – a 5th symphony Adagietto three minutes slower than any other, followed by the most breathless finale you could possibly imagine.

This first box brings together, at long last, his studio set of Mahler symphonies with three live concert performances of 5, 6 and 7 from 1988-93, breathtaking accounts that crack open the heavens. Even when stitched together from adjacent nights’ concerts to get rid of fudged notes, these performances are beyond compare. I have written in greater detail about them in Why Mahler?

The second box, containing some of Tennstedt’s best work for EMI on 14CDs, is of parallel voltage – disturbingly explosive in the opening of Beethoven’s Leonore #3 overture, irresistibly tender in Dvorak’s New World Symphony. There is abundant good cheer in Kodaly’s Hary Janos suite and something numinous in Schubert’s Great C major symphony. Strauss and Wagner are lavishly expressive and Bruckner 4 and 8 are magisterial. Tennstedt’s account of Bethoven’s Pastoral Symphony has an innocence unequalled in modern times. Most of the performances are by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, whose strings are not quite as silky as I remember; others are by the Berlin Philharmonic, who had a low opinion of the conductor but responded professionally to his instructions. There is also a serene Mahler 1 with the Chicago Symphony. This is not a record set, it’s an inexhaustible treasure trove.

>Buy Klaus Tennstedt: The complete Mahler symphonies at Amazon.com

>Buy Klaus Tennstedt: The great EMI recording at Amazon.com









July 24, 2011

Bach: 5 piano concertos
(Decca)
*****

We’re spoilt for choice this week with a breakthrough performance that reclaims Bach for the modern symphony orchestra and a Lucia performance that rivals the greatest on record. Where to start?

Riccardo Chailly, for all his many achievements, may well go down in music history as the conductor who reclaimed Bach for Leipzig and modern instruments. Dismissing the academic correctness of scratchy horns and gut strings, Chailly argues that the Bach tradition is unbroken in Leipzig and more fiercely maintained than anywhere else, more valid than arid musicological theory.

Working a virtuoso orchestra at high speed – his sole concession to period practice – he strips the concertos of encrusted reverence and plays them as Bach intended, as a coffeehouse family entertainment. Breathless at times but never incoherent, he cuts as much as nine minutes off the regular playing tome for one concerto without anyone feeling the loss, or imagining it could be played differently.

The soloist, Ramin Bahrami, has room for other insights. Remembering that Leipzig was always a trading post, a meeting point of east and west, he hears something of his own Iranian childhood in the F minor concerto, a hint of Persian folksong and traces of Jewish klezmer. This is Bach as I have always wanted to hear him - alive, engaged, alert to the living world.

>Buy this CD at Decca Online



Three opera sets

Donizetti: Lucia di Lammermoor
(Mariinsky Live)
*****

The attraction here is Natalie Dessay driving herself mad in the thick of a Russian cast - but there is more to this package than a lonesome star in an alien constellation. Dessay has few equals in this tragedy since Joan Sutherland, her spiralling descent leaving no emotion unravaged. There is an added darkness, though, to the Mariinsky orchestra sound that makes the drama more harrowing as Valery Gergiev contrives to give the music an unheralded edge of menace. Piotr Beczala’s Edgardo is top-drawer. Must be heard. Make that a five-star.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com





Beethoven: Fidelio
(Decca)
****

Jonas Kaufmann, Nina Stemme, with Claudio Abbado conducting – it reads like a throwback to the glory days of opera recording, and in many ways it is, taken from live Lucerne Festival performances with thrilling sound. The drawback is the German recitative, which sounds more tedious and stagy the longer it goes on. You’ll keep skipping tracks to get back to the music. Kaufmann, though, means buy it now.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com





Robert Saxton: The Wandering Jew
(NMC)
***

The English composer has constructed an original panorama of Jewish history in 90 minutes, from Jesus to Holocaust, via Faust and Spain. The music leads from darkness to light and back again, but the stretches of narrative pall quite quickly, making this more passion play than opera and quite draggy on record. Roderick Williams, a splendid baritone, drives the title role.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com









July 17, 2011

Beethoven: septet, sextet
(Tudor)
****

There are favourite works that you can go years without hearing and then return to as if you’d heard them only the day before yesterday. This performance by the Scharoun Ensemble Berlin is almost as good as it gets. The players, members of the Berlin Philharmonic, play Beethoven without needing to look at a page or each other. So cohesive is their flow that it can sound just a little too comfortable, too domesticated.

But then neither of these works has Beethoven raging at the heavens. The septet is contemporary with his first symphony, no great advance on Mozart, while the sextet – for two clarinets, two bassoons and two horns – is one of the odder combinations in his output, probably written just ahead of Fidelio and sharing some of its cadences.

But the liquid beauty of these creations s unparalleled. This is Beethoven at his most convivial and relaxed, played as part of a balanced daily diet.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical



3 more chamber CDs

Enescu: String quartets 1, 2
(Chandos)
****

The first quartet was written before the composer was 20, the second (dated 1944) is an attempt to extend the language of Fauré. Neither conforms to any current fashion except the Rumanian’s exceptional fine taste. Simon Blendis’s Schubert Ensemble play with admirable introspection.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical





Howard Blake: A Month in the Country
(Naxos)
***

Best known for his children’s cartoon score, The Snowman, Howard Blake is a serious, prolific composer with more than 600 opus numbers to his credit. The title piece is an adaptation of a Colin Firth war film for the Edinburgh String Quartet. Interlacing lyricism with sporadic rage, it exerts a fierce grip on the ear. The CD contains three other Blake pieces, ending with a discreet Snowman bonus.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com





Nada Ananda
(Slap the Moon Records)
***

The Edinburgh Quartet join classical guitarist Simon Thacker, a tabla player and Indian violin for first recordings of Nigel Osborne’s Birth of Naciketa, and Shirish Korde’s title piece. Nothing too heavy – too close, in fact, to background music: the composers sell us slightly short on invention. But the playing's terrific.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com









July 10, 2011

Revenge of the Folksingers
(Delphian)
*****

Folksong is a subversive art, the caustic wit of the deprived. This album subverts the varied British genres, though not by subjecting them to radical politics or wilful distortion. This is a much more subtle process on traditional instruments, altering existing arrangements to take the ear by surprise with unexpected conjunctions.

The opening number, Foggy, foggy dew, exemplifies the acuity of this improvisatory approach. A song that is usually droned in smoky dens opens with a pluck of what I think is a nyckelharpa, stating the singing widower’s solitude before other instruments add dimensions, dark and light, to his lament. The Salley Gardens takes sarcastic liberties with Benjamin Britten’s famous arrangement, listing bray harp and dulcitone in its instrumentarium. The third track, Bonnie Susie Cleland, is unbearably tragic yet delivered deadpan, as if tragedy is innate to Scottish life.

The performers are members of Concerto Caledonia and the voices are pitched to perfection, midway between rough trade and concert flourish. Track by track, the album exerts an ever more insistent traction. The recording was made in Aldeburgh, the morning after a concert residency. Any background noise you might hear must be the ghost of Peter Pears. Best record of the summer, so far.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical



Three orchestral CDs

The Pulitzer Project
(Cedille)
***

A good idea, in principle, to present three 1940s Pulitzer winners. Copland’s Appalachian Spring (1945) is in a class of its own; the other two – by William Schuman and Leo Sowerby – could be mistaken for exhortative Stalinism, were it not for the pro-America lyrics. Both are premiere recordings. Carlos Kalmar conducts Grant Park Orchestra and chorus with evident enthusiasm.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com





Remembering JFK
(Ondine)
**

A Bernstein fanfare opened the Kennedy Center in Washington in 1961; a Peter Lieberson elegy commemorates its jubilee; neither is a top-drawer attraction. Christoph Escehenbach conducts, together with the West Side Story suite and Gershwin concerto in F, soloists Tzimon Barto. A bonus CD features the Center’s 1961 inaugural concert. Strictly for souvenir buffs.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com





Respighi: Pines of Rome
(Onyx)
****

Pure listening pleasure – the dazzle of the three Roman suites, played by the Royal Philharmonic orchestra under Josep Caballé-Domenech – not a dull moment.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com









July 3, 2011

Benjamin Grosvenor
(Decca)
***

He is not the first British man to win Wimbledon in 75 years, but it’s been almost that long since a British pianist was last signed to the limelight label, Decca. Grosvenor has been in the public eye ever since he won the piano section of BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2004, aged 11. Much matured and soon to graduate from the Royal Academy of Music, he has found a voice of his own and sounds it here for the first time on record.

Most of the recital is made up of Chopin - a pity since he has least chance to shine against legends of past and present. I much enjoyed his quietude in three nocturnes and was impressed by his nonchalant virtuosity in three scherzos. Two Liszt transcriptions of Chopin folk songs add little to the sum of human wisdom; Liszt’s Reve is suggestively nebulous. The big piece on the disc is Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit, which Grosvenor delivers with delicious, meditative panache and appropriately nocturnal ambiguities.

But it’s all a bit low-key and the recording level is comparably discreet (complain, if you can’t hear, to producer Simon Kiln). One would have wanted a new pianist to be announced with more of a blast. I’m sure Grosvenor make much more noise later this month at the BBc Proms.

>Buy this CD at Amazon



Three more piano CDs

Ingolf Wunder
(DG)
****

Wunder was the Austrian pianist and audience favourite who came second – was robbed, some say – at the 2010 Chopin competition in Warsaw. He benefits from a rich, warm, rounded Deutsche Grammophon sound (producer Sid McLauchlan) and a meticulous Polish teacher, Adam Harasciewicz. The third piano sonata could hardly be more idiomatically played.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com





Nino Gvetadze
(Orchid)
***

The young Georgian contender finds an edge of fire in the Liszt B-minor sonata and a deft caress in his B-minor ballade. Definitely one to hear live, though the record is a fine introduction to her pungent style.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com





Maurizio Baglini
(Tudor)
**

The major Italian prize-winner, aged 24, plays the irresistible Busoni transcriptions of Bach organ and choral works, a wonderful interpretation of one great mind by another. Someone must have thought it was a good idea to play them in an Italian church, in December. It wasn’t. The acoustic is brittle, barely acceptable, and the brilliance of Baglini’s attack is made to sound merely aggressive. He needs to have a conversation with some superior sound engineers.

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June 27, 2011

Rossini: William Tell
(EMI)
****

Four acts of uncut William Tell is an awfully long night at the opera with no prospect of the sensual and moral apotheosis that comes with Tristan or Les Troyens. So it makes sense to get to know the work first on record, and then to return to the bits you like. This concert performance from Rome, sung in French and played by the orchestra and chorus of Santa Cecilia, under the direction of Antonio Pappano is absolutely as good as it currently gets.

The solo passages in the overture exemplify Pappano’s approach, less a matter of mass drama and the fate of nations as the tiny acts of individuals caught up in historic events. The Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley is commanding in role and range, with sweet support from Malin Byström and Marie-Nicole-Lemieux, and the American tenor John Osborn. You can hear some of the cast, sans Finley and Lemieux, on July 16 at the BBC Proms.

There is only one drawback: Riccardo Chailly’s studio dream team of Ghiaurov, Freni, Milnes and Pavarotti on Decca are eternally unbeatable.

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Three Rachmaninov CDs

Concertos 1, 4, Paganini Rhpasody
(Avie)
**

Simon Trcepski completes his set with the Royal Liverpool Phil and Vasily Petrenko with some razzle-dazzle playing and sombre touches, best in the Largo of the 4th concerto, but without the intellectual coherence of Stephen Hough’s recent set for Hyperion or the breath-taking freshness of Yuja Wang on DG. With Trcepski, I’m never quite sure which side of the fence he is going to finish on.

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Corelli Variations &c
(Bridge)
***

A young Russian of the old school, Vassily Primakov has a touch that is steeped in the Rachmaninov tradition, sombre and introspective without embracing morbidity. He achieves a limpid beauty in the Corelli set and much entertainment in the preludes, though his reading of the iconic C# sharp minor feels a tad immature. No matter, this pianist will go far.

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Preludes and melodies
(Signum)
***

The pedigree in Alessio Bax’s recording is in the small print. His producer is Anna Barry, a regular Gergiev partner with Grammy nominations, the sound engineer is Mike Hatch and the location is a castle in mid-Wales. The recital is strong on atmosphere and contrast. The Italian-born pianist seems to have time on his hands even in prestissimi and the selection is pleasing, culminating in his own sweet arrangement of the irresistible Vocalise.

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June 20, 2011

Lutoslawski, Szymanowski, A. Tchaikovsky
(BR-Klassik)
****

Mariss Jansons knows most 20th century repertoire and conducts very little of it. So to hear him in a programme of two Poles and a contemporary Russian is rare and revelatory. You will never experience a more hair-raising account of Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra than this. Jansons reads it through a Shostakovich prism as an individual’s response to Stalin’s terror. Written in Warsaw in the early 1950s, the Concerto is a defining document of the mid-century and this performance, bristling with barely suppressed rage, achieves its apotheosis. The Munich audience response at the close is mutedly confused.

Jansons takes less vehement possession of Szymanowski’s Song of the Night, his third symphony, over-Russianasing its choral backdrop and making its troubled intimacies a little too declamatory. Rafal Bartminski is the tenor soloist, Andreas Röhn the sensitive solo violinist.

The fourth symphony by Andrei Tchaikovsky (no relation) was commissioned by Yuri Bashmet with a prominent viola part for the 60th anniversary of the end of World War Two. It is an inoffensive orchestral showpiece that draws on the Mahler-Shostakovich lexicon to make some rather obvious points. Nimrod Guez is the soloist here and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra play with fire in their fingers.

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Three offbeat contemporary CDs

Només les flors
(Columna Música)
*****

Hypnotic from first note to last, I have listened to this disc more than any other in the past month. A sheaf of Portuguese scores for viola and piano, written between 1925 and 1999, its opening Scherzino by Ricard Lamote de Grignon finds the compelling, meditative sadness of Fado song. The succeeding sonatas are no less gripping. The only well-known composer here is Frederic Mompou, represented by four early melodies. Ashan Pilla and Albert Gimenez are the artists. I can’t get this disc off my deck.

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Winging it
(Cedille)
**

John Corigliano displays his knowledge of Bartók, Sondheim, John Cage and other influences in this eclectic set for solo piano, played by Ursula Oppens (with Jerome Lowenthal). I was much taken by a sonata for two pianos tuned a quarter-tone apart, an ethereal venture into micro-tone cultures that never quite leaves the US mainstream.

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Philippe Manoury: Inharmonies
(Naïve)
**

The French composer, nearing 60, combines church chorales with intellectual conundra. The title piece, hauntingly sung by Laurence Equilbey’s choir Accentus, messes around with non-tempered intervals, outside the tonal scale. Clever and unexpectedly appealing.

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June 13, 2011

Liszt Wild and Crazy
(Deutsche Grammophon)
*

What can we do to make Liszt cool? A roomful of label flaks nibble at their pencils and scribble down what they know about the sainted bicentenarian. Hmmm… lemme think. Franz Liszt, right? Women fainted before he played a note. He had scandalous affairs with married women and produced three children out of wedlock while earning the Pope’s blessing and entering holy orders. He was Hungarian, French and German, multi-market. Lisztomania… that’s what Heine called it. 'I gottit!' yells an intern. Liszt, Wild and Crazy.

Oh, dear. A ghastly red cover with a silhouetted pianist signals that this is a marketing wheeze not a serious album. The booklet credits a Project Manager; no producer is loisted. The tracks are drawn from deep archives but the array is random, without thematic connection or reason. The heart quickens intermittently at the dazzle of a Hungarian rhapsody or fantasia from a Martha Argerich, Vladimir Horowitz or Shura Cherkassy, but the flicker from one sweetmeat to the next gives no sense of who Liszt was or where he was heading.

The young Alice Sara Ott and the Lang Lang sit well among artists of pedigree but the most interesting two tracks are froma pianist the world has forgotten. Jean-Rodolphe Kars was born in India to Austrian-Jewish refugees and was building quite a career, in the 1970s when, under the influence of Olivier Messiaen, he retired from playing in 1981 and, like Liszt, entered holy orders. Kars went one further than Liszt: he joined a monastery and was never heard from again.

Kars apart, the album is an embarrassment – an act of condescension by a record label that has lost its dignity.

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Three contemporary British CDs

Harrison Birtwistle: Night’s Black Bird
(NMC)
***

The further he gets into his 70s, the closer Birtwistle draws to the language of late Stravinsky, doing so without losing a scrap of his own identity. The title work is the most recent here, and I prefer it to two earlier scores, avidly as all three are played by the Halle orchestra under Ryan Wigglesworth. That said, the rustic 1994 Cry of Anubis, with its macabre tuba solo has a gritty originality that could not be mistaken for any other composer's.

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The Shadow Side: contemporary song from Scotland
(Delphian)
***

The soprano Irene Drummond has the perfect keening tone for these Scots laments by James MacMillan, Edward MacGuire and others, with Ian Burnside giving her close support at the piano. I especially liked John McLeod’s wildly expressive 3 Poems of Irina Ratushinskaya.

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Stephen Hough: Other Love Songs
(Linn)
****

The pianist, author and blogger is also a capable composer. On this disc he interpolates Other Love Songs on gay themes between two sets of Brahms’s Liebeslieder, all performed by the Prince Consort. Hough avoids Brahms's florid touch and strips his songs down mostly to sotto voce and solo. There are a few little touches of Sondheim in the night and one maiservant’s song of defiance, but the idiom is elegiac, unfailingly tender, rather wonderful.

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June 6, 2011

Gustav Allan Pettersson: Chamber Music
(MDG)
****

Pettersson, the Swedish outcast, is known if at all for his Barefoot Songs an his 16 symphonies, of which the seventh gets an occasional hearing abroad. A viola player in the Stockholm Philharmonic, he managed to offend the entire music establishment and was disparaged as a ‘screechy’ and ‘lumpy’ composer. Thirty years after his death, somebody ought to apologise.

His chamber music, new to me, is constantly surprising. Two of the elegies, dating from the 1930s, are early and elegiac. But once Pettersson finds his voice he leads the ear into what feels like safe pastures, and then turns them into a total nightmare. Three sonatas for two violins sound as if they are becoming progressively untuned. A 1949 concerto for violin and string quartet goes from early to late Bartók in the space of ten opening second, fast forward into Webern and into the peculiarly tortured world of a unique voice, universally misunderstood.

The more one listens to these pieces, the more coherence emerges. Members of the Leipzig string quartet play with tremendous energy and a blithe disregard for conventional beauty, although when the concerto enters its Lento movemement the contrast with the preceding violence could melt a stone to sobs. A genuine original.

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Three Rite of Spring CDs

Bergen Philharmonic/Andrew Litton
(BIS)
**

The 1947 revision of Stravinsky’s masterpiece can sound over-civilised, too many notes and all in the right place. Andrew Litton overcomes a sedate opening and the Norwegian orchestra has some virtuosic players, but this does not grab me by the lapels. The companion piece is Petrushka.

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BBC National Orchestra of Wales/ Thierry Fischer
(Signum)
***

Original 1913 version, opposite approach. High tension in the introduction and explosive energy in the dances. Some roughness in the strings and woodwinds, but who cares? Another Diaghilev ballet, Poulenc’s Les Biches, fills the disc.

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Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte Carlo/Yakov Kreizberg
(OPMC Classics)
****

A thing of beauty and a joy forever. Kreizberg, recorded a year ago, takes the 1947 revision and achieves a striking balance of refinement and ferocity. Sensitive to a fault – and that’s hardly an adjective you’d expect to apply to the Rite of Spring – he brings out the religious reverence of ritual alongside the pagan violations. An inspired performance, the more to be regretted as one of his last. It appears in the three-CD set with Petrushka, Firebird and Pulcinella.

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May 30, 2011

Korngold, Goldschmidt, Bloch: cello concertos
(Avi-Music)
****

Why did no-one make this link before? Three cello concertos reflecting the Jewish experience in the 20th century are brought together by the rising soloist Julian Steckel, a member of Claudio Abbado’s Lucerne Festival Orchestra. The first, by E. W. Korngold, was written in Hollywood despair in 1946 by an exiled composer who was trying vainly to retrieve success in the concert hall. Written directly after his violin concerto – famously scorned by one critic as ‘more corn than gold’ - the single-movement cello concerto is evocative of one of his recent movies, Deception, though far more daring in its harmonic relations. Seldom performed, with fascinating percussion colours, it is a gentle relevation.

As his centrepiece, Steckel plays Ernest Bloch’s Shelomo, dating from the First World War and rooted in Hebrew hymnody. Once heard as much as Elgar’s concerto, it has fallen out of fashion; this is an eloquent, modern reading.

The prime rediscovery of this album is the 1953 concerto by Berthold Goldschmidt, premiered by William Pleeth and recorded by Yo Yo Ma but hardly ever performed in concert. Witty, lyrical and contemporary, the concerto takes its forms from Bach and its mood from the composer’s refusal to bemoan his often miserable English exile. Steckel understands the work better than any soloist I have heard. Daniel Raiskin conducts the state orchestra of the Rheinische Philharmonie. Not to be missed.

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Three operas you may never see

Pergolesi: Olympiade
(Sony BMG)
***

It’s the Italian martyr’s tercentenary year and they’re cleaning out his attic. His last opera sounds like early Handel left out to form bubbles in the sun, . It is revived in Innsbruck with great gusto by Alessandro de Marchi and a cast topped by Rafaella Milanesi, Ann-Beth Solvang, Jeffrey Francis and the outstanding Olga Pasichnyk.

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Reimann: Medea
(Oehms)
**

This was German Premiere of the Year in 2010 by a prolific composer who rarely gets staged abroad. It’s beautifully made, couched in post-tonal sonorities and probably very dramatic on stage. But do we need another Medea after Cherubini’s, with memories of Callas aluve on record? I’m not convinced, though Claudia Barainsky is chilling.

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Andre Previn: Brief Encounter
(DG)
*

Previn’s second opera reprises a World War Two movie with stretches of music that pay homage to Copland, Bernstein, Korngold, Rosza and Britten. Elizabeth Futral and Nathan Gunn are the almost-lovers. Brief? Ten minutes feels like an eternity.

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May 22, 2011

Shura Cherkassky
(ICA)
****

Here’s a first: classical artists agency launches its own record label. First releases from ICA have been pick’n’mix for sound quality, but this Cologne radio retrieval is a total stunner.

Listen to Cherkassky (1909-1995) in the opening of Rachmaninov’s Paganini Variations and you’ll think he’s written himself. Tempo, expression, humour, sobriety – all bear the hallmarks of an original interpreter. Each variation comes up with a fresh surprise and the Cologne orchestra, conducted by Zdenek Macal in excellent 1970 sound, hangs on for dear life. This is a different Cherki from the one we know on major labels, much more public entertainer than custodian of tradition. I kick myself that I never heard him live.

Even richer than the Rachmaninov are the solo pieces – Prokofiev’s seventh sonata, recorded in 1951, friskier and markedly less morose than the prime interpreters Gilels and Richter – and Stravinsky’s three pieces from Petrushka, riotous, clangourous and much the better for the occasional fluffed note. The reckless style is closer to rock than classical, never sounding respectable.

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Three more ICA CDs

Adrian Boult
(ICA)
****

Sir Adrian’s account of Elgar’s Enigma Variations is the benchmark by which all others are measured. The speeds are organic, the mood arcadian. Heard in a 1971 Royal Albert Hall concert with the BBC, you wonder how anyone can ever do it differently again. There is also a 1976 Brahms first symphony of otherworldly authority, rounded off by an obsequious interview with the master.

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Arthur Rubinstein
(ICA)
****

The old man and the Brahms – 2nd piano concerto, Christoph von Dohnanyi conducting in Zurich, 1966. Because this is a live concert, the piano is less centred and distorted, the balance restored. Much to revere, especially the Andante. There are some solo add-ons of Brahms, Chopin and De Falla.

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Evgeny Svetlanov
(ICA)
****

Widely underrated, written off as a Soviet-era functionary, there is more subtlety to Svetlanov than to many of his successors. Here he leads a shimmering Tchaikovsky Winter Dreams with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1996 and Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite with the Philharmonia in April 2002, weeks before his death, both taken from London concerts. Cracking pace, super playing (who’s that sensational BBC clarinet?).

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May 15, 2011

Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue
(Decca)
****

Commercial crossover has some well-intentioned antecedents, none nobler than the two concertos George Gershwin composed for symphony halls. The trouble with good intentions is, of course, that they usually end up falling between the cracks. Sometimes, the jazz elements in a crossover piece go all black-tie, other times the classical musicians try to play too cool. In this release, however, both sides get it just right.

The pianist is an Italian ex-drummer, Stefano Bollani, the orchestra one of Germany’s oldest – the Gewandhaus of Leipzig – and the conductor another Italian, Riccardo Chailly. None of them makes any compromise and the result is sheer joy. Knowing the orchestra is playing it absolutely straight, the pianist is free to improvise in the Rhapsody. Feeling its way in a strange, transatlantic idiom, the orchestra strives for clean sound. The brass gives a Wagner blare, 7,000 miles from New Orleans, but with an exuberance that is close to the spirit of the thing. And the string solos in the suite from Porgy and Bess might almost be lifted from the Mendelssohn concerto.

The rendition of Rhapsody in Blue may not be to everyone’s taste, but the Concerto in F – which Chailly finds close to Stravinsky – is the most convincing performance I have heard on record. Neither soloist nor orchestra concedes an inch of idiom and the tension keeps tightening like a Danish cop series. Inspirational casting, and fun to boot.

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Three transcription CDs

Kuniko plays Reich
(Linn)
***

Stunning versions of three seminal works – Electric Counterpoint, Vermont Couterpoint and Six Marimbas – knocked off by a Japanese performer who sounds immune to fear. The shimmer of her textures is beyond verbal description, a kind of painting in sound. Health warning: too much marimba can get monotonous but, taken in limited doses, this is a disc to remember.

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Christian Rivet: 24 ways upon the bells
(Naïve)
***

Works by Dowland, Britten, the Beatles and some English anonymities, played on guitars, lute and archlute by a compelling French virtuoso who has put together his programme with the sensitivity of a great chef. Here Comes the Sun sounds as if it were written for archlute by one of the makers of the King James Bible.

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Barb Jungr sings Bob Dylan
(Linn)
****

Jungr is an interpreter of the highest class: she takes Dylan’s words and music and makes them her own. There are some of the best classical and jazz arrangements on record since George Martin produced the Beatles, with ear-catching snatches of Pie Jesu, bell-ringing and sundry post-minimalisms.

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May 8, 2011

Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde
(DG)
****

Never previously released, this 1964 Vienna Festival performance under Josef Krips features the fantasy pairing of Fritz Wunderlich and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the alternative, baritone-for-mezzo version of the score. My preference (and Mahler’s) is for mezzo, especially in the autumnal Abschied and I have never left an all-male rendition feeling fully satisfied. Fischer-Dieskau’s famous Decca recording with Bernstein and James King worked overtime to over-egg the case for the boys.

This concert is altogether more organic. Wunderlich is less full-on than in his EMI studio recording with Klemperer and Christa Ludwig, a little bumptious at times though never less than beautiful. Krips maintains an unobtrusive efficiency and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra – is that Nikolaus Harnoncourt on principal cello? – are idiomatic and ultra-flexible, in decidedly less-than-ideal sound.

The USP of this record, however, is the immaculate Fischer-Dieskau delivering a masterclass in singing Mahler, every syllable in perfect articulation, matching colour to the musical notes, the transitional moment in the finale handled with such ease that you rub your ears and listen twice before believing it. No fancy tricks, no audio upgrade, this is live music at high risk in a city where Mahler was not yet rehabilitated. A historic recording, in all senses of the term, indispensable as a lesson in the art of singing Mahler. Mezzos, beware.

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More Mahler CDs from the archives

Mahler 8th symphony
(LPO Live)
*****

I have never heard an 8th more overwhelming than Klaus Tennstedt’s January 1991 concerts at London’s South Bank, a suspension of mortal limitations from start to finish. Released here for the first time from a BBC recording, the sound of that unrepeatable concert is marginally less vivid than EMI’s 1986 Walthamstow sessions and the organ is distinctly wheezy, but the singing and playing are celestial and the tension sensational. Ignore those qualifications: this is probably the greatest Mahler 8 on record. Once you've listened, you will probably delete the word probably.

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Mahler 3rd
(ICA)
****

Three days after this October 1960 concert in Cologne, Dmitri Mitropoulos collapsed and died during a rehearsal of the third in Milan. For this reason, if no other, the performance compels attention. It is wondrously shaped, ethereal in the finale and signed off with the conductor’s farewell speech to the radio orchestra with which he had worked for some years. The second disc is filled out with Debussy La Mer. An indispensable retrieval.

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Mahler 2nd
(ICA)
***

William Steinberg was a much underrated, under-recorded Mahlerian. His tempi here in the Resurrection are textbook and the Cologne radio orchestra play well. The chorus and soloists are somewhat under-par and the sound imperfect, but the scarcity of performances in 1965 gives the occasion a seat-clenching tension.

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May 1, 2011

Beethoven: piano sonatas
(EMI)
****

Anyone who opens the Pathétique sonata at such a deliberate plod is smitten with either terror or genius. Maybe both in Ingrid Fliter’s case. She has been known to abort a recital after a few bars, walk off stage and return to start again, unhappy with her opening attack. Once she gets going, she grips.

The three sonatas here are among the most familiar – Pathétique, Tempest and Appassionata – but Fliter manages to give them depth of field, a fresh dimension. Where most pianist melt the adagio cantabile of the Pathétique like ice-cream in sunlight, she keeps a tight chill on sentiment and encourages the mind to explore one level down below the obvious.

The furies of the other two sonatas are tempered by fragility – think bone-china tea-set in an earthquake zone. But nothing Fliter touches is predictable. She is a major artist who needs a bigger stage. Maestros should be begging her for concerto dates.

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Three more solo piano CDs

Liszt: B minor sonata &c
(Sony/BBC Radio 3)
****

Khatia Buntiashvili, a BBC New Generation Artist, takes a roundabout route to Liszt. She precedes the titanic B-minor sonata with a bon-bon of a Liebstraum and succeeds it with the diabolical Mephisto waltz and The Lugubrious Gondola. She certainly plays the hells out of the sonata, at a force that would make Horowitz blanch, and every bar that she plays makes me all the keener to hear her live. Drama, for Khatia, is all. She ends with two limpid Bach transcriptions: the perfect curtain.

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Haydn: sonatas vol.2
(Chandos)
***

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet brings a devil-may care attitude to Haydn, speeding at the dangerous bends and slowing to walking pace on the motorway. If Brendel or Schiff is your ideal, read no further. If not, do try the C-major sonata, no. 48. It’s happy-hour Haydn.

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Wilde plays Beethoven
(Delphian)
***

David Wilde, 76, returns to Beethoven with a composer’s perspective. The playing of sonatas 17, 21 and 31 is slightly old-school, rich in logical progression, rewarding for those who like to think as they listen.

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April 24, 2011

Brahms: A German Requiem
(Virgin/ICA)
****/**

The old thunderbox is not heard much these days, its growling summonses to duty sounding peremptorily out of step with our gentler, consensual times. Brahms goes dangerously unreconstructed in his choice of Lutheran texts - no hope here for the unbeliever – and the Requiem music is heavy even on a German scale.

Paavo Järvi does his damnedest to give it liftoff and, for the most part, succeeds. The Frankfurt radio orchestra responds well to his featherlight tempi and the Swedish Radio Choir are back to sounding the best in Europe. Ludovic Tézier manages to be sonorous without sounding stentorian and, if Natalie Dessay is a little shrill, she compensates with a shimmering, unBaltic lilt.

Just how well this performance is shaped and how fine it sounds will be demonstrated by a straight comparison with a newly-issued 1956 Otto Klemperer radio relay from Cologne. The soloists Elisabeth Grummer and Hermann Prey are in good voice but the orchestra drags and the chorus are ragged. Klemperer’s speeds are metronomic, lacking fluidity, in boxy studio sound. Järvi, by comparison, has devoted much thought to his interpretation, striving for contemporary relevance.

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Three vocal CDs

An Irish Songbook
(Signum)
****

High soprano Ailish Tynan has drawn far and wide for Irish texts set to music, including Samuel Barber’s and John Cage’s James Joyce meditations and several by stiff-lipped Englishmen. The whole, however is delightful, culminating in Britten’s stunning arrangements of Thomas Moore and W. B. Yeats. Iain Burnside is a dream of an accompanist.

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Hugo Wolf: Italian Songbook
(RCA)
**

Mojca Erdmann and Christian Gerhaher are the singers, crisp in pitch and articulation, sometimes a little over-dramatic and, in Gerhaher’s case, overloud. Gerold Huber’s piano takes a back-seat. He should have done more of the driving.

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Mojca Erdmann: Mostly Mozart
(DG)
***

The Hamburg soprano opens her yellow-label account with a non-obvious range of Mozart and chums – Salieri, Paisiello, Holzbauer and J C Bach. The voice is high, pure and powerful and there is often a twinkle of amusement. Andrea Marcon conducts La Cetra baroque orchestra of Basle.

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April 17, 2011

Ida Haendel plays Khachaturian and Bartók
(Hänssler)
****

The great violinist, now in her mid-80s, made the Sibelius and Walton concertos her trademark pieces. Khachaturian seems somehow beneath her dignity and Bartok’s second concerto too abrasive for her late-romantic temperament.

Well, think again. These 1960s radio performances from Stuttgart with a house orchestra under the capable Hans Müller-Kray demonstrate how a great artist takes ownership of a piece of music and reconceives it in her own image. The overlong, overly realistic first movement of the Khachturian passes in a flash of virtuosic fireworks, yielding to a sentimental andante that stops just short of schmaltz and a finale that she carries off like a tightrope walker who refuses to recognise that the rope beneath her is made of very thin material.

In Bartók, Haendel finds constant beauty. She makes the opening melody singable and the whole of this 1939 creation coherent with anxiety and regret. At the edge of tonality, her intonation offers promise of resolution. Less anguished than Menuhin, less gymnastic than present-day performers, she cuts right to the heart of the work. This is demonstration-quality playing, unmissable for any lover of the violin.

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Three offbeat orchestral CDs

Josef Suk: Fairy Tale
(Naxos)
****

Suk wrote a mighty Asrael symphony while mourning his wife, Otilie, and her father, Anton Dvorak. The rest of his music is seldom played by non-Czechs so to hear a US orchestra give a fresh and unaffected account of three tone poems is like seeing a field of rain-soaked daffodils in sunlight. Buffalo Philharmonic concertmaster Michael Ludwig takes the solos in a gorgeous account of the G-minor Fantasy. The Fairy Tale is a bit folksy for my taste but the concluding Fantasy Schero finds Suk back at his best. Jo-Ann Falletta conducts with terrific sweep and drama.

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Hans Gal: 1st symphony
(Avie)
**

The Viennese composer, exiled to Scotland in 1938, wrote in a pre-modern style that looked anachronistic while still wet on the page. Paired here with Schubert’s 6th, his first symphony add little to the sum of human progress. The Northern Sinfonia play both symphonies with great vim under Thomas Zehetmair’s baton, though Gal's has yet to be tested before a live audience.

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Alberto Ginastera: Popol Vuh
(Naxos)
***

It takes a good composer to conjure up as furious a storm as the opening of this Argentine suite and a great orchestra, the LSO, to bring it off. Gisèle Ben Dir delivers a cracking tempo and Michael Fine at Abbey Road produces rounded, refined sound. The other folk-national pieces here are played at lower voltage by the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Popol Vuh, though, is the one I want to hear live.

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April 3, 2011

Jennifer Pike
(Chandos)
****

Nothing gives me greater pleasure than to see young talent overcome early setbacks and plant its feet firmly on the classical stage. Jennifer Pike was named BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2002 at the age of 12 with a geeky account of the Mendelssohn violin concerto.

After the flashbulbs faded, she was caught between the twin pincers of music industry exploitation and adolescent normality. Five years ago, she lost the use of her on-loan Gofriller when the owner needed to sell. She found another to borrow and is trying to raise funds to buy it.

Good things, though, come to those who wait. After several missteps she found the right agent and record label, relaunching on family-owned Chandos. The first results are confident and impressive. In the three great French sonatas, accompanied by the experienced Martin Roscoe, she sounds like an artist who knows exactly who she is and where she’s heading.

Saving the virtuoso Franck to last, she opens with the ambiguous Debussy – fiddle was never his favourite – and teases tortured mysteries out of the late wartime meditation. Ravel she treats with sultry style and, reaching César Franck, resists temptations of cheap showmanship to deliver an interpretation of quiet substance. This is a mature artist making her statement, nothing flash but warmly satisfying. She sounds set for the long haul.

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Two mature piano CDs

Daniel Barenboim
(Decca)
****/***

Barenboim’s new record deal takes him slightly off his track. Never a Chopin specialist, his two performances here avoid idiomatic reverence. In the concertos, partnered by his own Berlin orchestra and conducted by the ascendant Andris Nelsons, Barenboim looks around like a first-time tourist in Poland and takes in the atmosphere without emotional investment. Given that neither concerto is a blinding masterpiece, the approach pays dividends in revealed detail and dialogue.

The solo pieces at a Warsaw recital are less comfortable. Astonishing with his reflective tricks of rubato in the B-minor sonata, Barenboim lapses in the waltzes a little too much into Arthur Rubinstein old school, an affectionate anachronism, not quite the full-on explorer.

>More info at Decca Classics





Nelson Freire
(Decca)
***

Brazil’s most beloved classical musician has devoted much of his life to Chopin and Liszt. In the latter’s bicentennial year, he records a selection of travel snaps that might work better in the recital hall. On record, Liszt’s peregrinations make you want the whole tour; flicker shots are not enough. Freire is at his most commanding when he plays the full set of Consolations to close the album with a compassion that could melt stone.

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April 3, 2011

Rossini arias
(Naïve)
****

I think I have found a cure for my generalised Rossini aversion, my tendency to dismiss him as a master trill-maker with little to offer the intellect or the emotions. The cure is called Julia Lezhneva and the seven arias she dispenses on this modest disc have hardly been off my playing deck all week.

Lezhnova, new to me, comes from a Russian family of geophysicists and has been finishing her studies in Cardiff with tenor Dennis O’Neill. She won the first Paris international Opera Competition six months ago, does not yet have a working website and , on her debut disc at 21, seems to be heading for the stratosphere.

The first thing that strikes me about her fireworks is the complete lack of fuss. ‘Tanti affetti’ from La Donna del lago is delivered with a rare integrity that makes the glitter part of the general texture rather than an applause magnet. The voice sounds mature and fully formed. Often as not in the Cenerentola arias one is reminded more of Mozart style than Italian excess. Marc Minkowski directs the Sinfonia Varsovia with a very light touch and the choir of Warsaw Chamber Opera do the necessary. But it’s Lezhneva that keeps the ear glued to the speakers, demanding more. She’ll go far.

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Three song CDs

Wilhelm Kienzl, vol 1.
(Chandos)
***

A contemporary of Mahler and Strauss though, by his own admission, a small talent, Kienzel had a transient hit with an opera Der Evangelimann, but for the most part just enjoys writing songs for his friends. The idiom seldom advances beyond early Brahms but the manner is unfailingly agreeable and the singing here by Christiane Libor, Carsten Süss and Jochen Kupfer, with producer Stacey Bartsch at the piano, is fine and often fun. Expect no ironies or depth, but the song’s the thing and the sound’s exemplary. I particularly liked An die Nacht (track 21).

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical





Loewe and Schumann
(Onyx)
***

Hand on heart, how many songs can you name by Carl Loewe? Not a big hitter in his own right of posterity but paired with Robert Schumann’s Liederkreis he provides context and depth of field to the more substantial work. One can hear the German Lied taking its first big strides after Schubert in this intelligent selection. Henk Nevin (baritone) is accompanied by Hans Eijsackers.

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Schubert: Die schöne Müullerin
(Wigmore Hall)
***

The baritone Christopher Maltman, last seen in the buff in Kasper Holten’s new film, Juan gives a delicate account of the miller’s girl attractions, sensitively shaped by Graham Johnson at the piano and without a cough in the live audience (thanks to producer Jeremy Hayes). Not sure about the brown check suit in the cover shot.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical







March 27, 2011

Beethoven: piano concertos 4, 5
(Regis)
****

You cannot tell from the opening phrases that this is one of the greatest studio performances ever released on record. Emil Gilels avoids exaggerated hush in the entry to the G major concerto and the Philharmonia Orchestra, under Leopold Ludwig, give an almost prosaic response. That, however, is the tease and deception of immaculate art.

What follows is altogether out of the ordinary. The Russian soloist plays with the kind of freedom one rarely hears on stage, flexible and spontaneous in almost every phrase, and his cadenzas are exercises in total surprise. He does not so much play the concerto as narrate it, taking us into an imaginary world full of fears and pleasures. Ludwig and the orchestra give him full rein and, while their playing is not of equal calibre, their alertness to Gilels’ changes of speed and dynamic cannot be faulted. Gilels recorded the concerto more famously with George Szell, but less revealingly. Long a staple of the EMI brand, the historic recording has now been reissued at low price.

The Emperor concerto is not quite in the same league, but then very little is. If it’s fire and brimstone you want in the Emperor go to Rubinstein. What Gilels gives is a dissenting quietude, a virtual history of the piece that bypasses its relation to tyrants. One has to listen to this record at least three times to grasp the workings of a very private mind.

More on Gilels here

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Three accordion CDs to assault your prejudices

Bach: Goldberg variations
(Winter&Winter)
***

They’ve got to be kidding, right? Bach’s keyboard masterpiece done on the squeezebox, from a label that likes messing with its music. There’s an even bigger shock in store once Teodoro Anzellotti starts to play. He’s hypnotic, nothing less. Just when you think you’ve heard all you need to hear, he lulls you into staying with his weird, wacky fairground reimaging of the Goldbergs. It’s a different world.

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Havard Svensrud: Transkripsjonar
(Norild)
**

This Norwegian one-man band goes to Grieg’s Holberg Suite what Anzellotti did to Bach. He takes it out of rainy old Bergen and places it in a summer fair with lots of competitive attractions. Three further transcriptions of Albeniz, Paganini and Bach/Busoni are less compelling.

>Buy this CD at Norlids






Bjarke Mogesen: Winter Sketches
(Orchid)
****

Remember Leif Ove Andsnes’s piano disc called The Long, Long Winter Night? This is the accordion equivalent – played, if that’s possible, with even greater virtuosity. Mogesen is amazing. He has stunning command of dynamics and an ability to create an atmosphere that pianists would kill for. Much of his material is Russian, recnet and relatively obscure – such composers as Solotaryov, Repnikov and Kusyakov. But don’t be afraid of the dark. This is some of the most persuasive music making you will ever hear. When I posted one track on free download at Christmas, it outstripped most other releases. You may still be able to listen to it here

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March 20, 2011

John Adams: Portrait
(Analekta)
****

John Adams goes all huffy nowadays when anyone refers to him as a minimalist, distancing himself from his roots in a movement that made melody permissible, often to the point of nausea.

The three pieces on this disc, played with great zest by Angèle Dubeau’s Quebec ensemble La Pieta, demonstrate the strength of those roots. Shaker Loops for string septet was made in 1978 out of fragments of a previous string quartet, itself founded on Steve Reich’s use of melodic loops of differing length. The language here may belong to Reich but the syntax is uniquely Adams, a relentless pulsing that offers no promise of eventual resolution. You take the ride at your own risk.

Both other pieces here date from the early 1990s when Adams was struggling with his eclectic violin concerto. Road Movies for violin and piano manages to be repetitive without ever becoming hypnotic so effectively does the composer shift the landscape with new features. John’s Book of Alleged Dances is plain old mischief – six itchy riffs for string quartet in which the tune is forever challenged by pizzicato clicks of what might be a defective metronome. Dubeau’s sense of fun is infectious and the sound immediate. The album is original and fun. Why her hair stylist and make-up artist get listed among the credits on an audio record is unfathomable.

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Three string quartet CDs

The Smith Quartet: Dance
(Signum)
***

Trailblazers of quartet minimalism, the Smiths have lost none of their fervour for new works in numerous styles. The stand-out piece on this collection is Tan Dun’s plucky Black Dance – and there’s lots more shorts, by Volans, Nyman, Adams, Kats-Chernin (lovely), Tunde Jegede and Django Bates. All new, not a dead composer among them.

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Schubert, Berg
(Onyx)
***

The Kuss quartet match Schubert’s 15th and last quartet with Alban Berg’s first. The playing is sensitive to a high degree with some rapturous turns of phrase especially in the Schubert. Nonetheless, I am still not convinced the works fit together.

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Haydn ‘Russian’ quartets
(Onyx)
***

The title is phony, arising from a belated dedication to a future Tsar, but the opus 33 set finds Haydn at his most playful. The reconstituted Borodin Quartet, once the most famous in Russia, are a little heavy for my taste in the ‘Joke’ (op 33/3) and How do you do (op 33/5). The slower passages, though, are tremendous.

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March 13, 2011

Pergolesi: A tribute
(DG)
****

This one of those records where the performance is more impressive than the music. Anna Netrebko and Marianna Pizzolato are blow-me-down breathtaking in the Stabat Mater, the best-known piece by the short-lived Pergolesi. The orchestra of Santa Cecilia do not put a fingernail wrong and Antonio Pappano’s tempi feel absolutely organic. DG’s last Pergolesi recording was with Claudio Abbado in 2010. Such is the surety of Pappano’s touch that I have trouble remembering any of it.

Pergolesi was 26 when he died of tuberculosis in March 1726. He had driven Naples wild with excitement with a comic intermezzo in an opera seria, and he was maturing as a church composer when his lungs gave out. The carbohydrates on this disc are two cantatas and a sinfonia, very filling. None of them stamps the composer as a genius or provides much by way of intellectual nutrient. Only the Stabat Mater does so – and does so from the first strains of orchestral introduction, a shimmer lovelier than any of Bach’s and sprung with irresistible rhythms.

Netrebko is denied an agent’s-choice counterweight and paired by Pappano with the rich low register of Pizzolato, Italy’s fast-rising contender in the heir-to-Bartoli race. In the absence of male singers, neither soloist bothers to show off virtuosic trills. The result is a colloquium of stunning intimacy, a must-hear Stabat Mater.

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Three violin sonata CDs

Vilde Frang
(EMI)
***

The young Norwegian’s mix-and-match of Grieg, Richard Strauss and Bartok is too many colours for one box of sweets. The Grieg is saccharine, the Strauss double-cream, with Michail Lifts at the piano. Only in the solo Bartok sonata does Frang find real grit and resolution.

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Georges-Emanuel Schneider
(CCR)
***

The Swiss-born violinist plays unaccompanied sonatas by Bach and Ysaye together with the north-face original version of the Bartók work, the one that gave Menuhin so much trouble before the composer consented to gentle revisions. Schneider has the measure of the piece if not its full drama. In the Bach A minor sonata he could be more assertive; the Ysaye op 27/4 is, however, a winner.

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Augustin Hadelich
(Avie)
***

The usp on this Paris-themed release is the little-heard Poulenc sonata, lyrically done by Hadelich and partner, Robert Kulek. They do the Debussy with much the same attractive shimmer, very much a la mode, but have little to add in the neo-classical Stravinsky suite and the second Prokofiev sonata.

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March 6, 2011

Britten; Four Sea Interludes, Cello Symphony &c.
(Chandos)
***

One of my early ear-openers on CD was a Chandos recording of the Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, paired with nautical works by Frank Bridge and Arnold Bax, played by the Ulster Orchestra under Vernon Handley. The playing was average for the 1980s and the disc short-measure at 52 minutes. But the idiom was so familiar to the musicians that you could taste the brine on your tongue and the fear of the fate that awaited Grimes and his apprentice boy.

Chandos have returned to these bracing pieces with Edward Gardner, music director of English National Opera, and the BBC Philharmonic, a vastly superior group than Ulster’s men in the midst of the troubles. The performance has high density and high drama. Gardner knows the opera through his fingertips and conveys its terrors with a chill worthy of Alfred Hitchcock. It’s a fine supplement to the old release, but not a full replacement. Handley’s edge of despair cannot be dislodged from memory.

The other works on disc are the Cello Symphony, which takes too long to get going. Paul Watkins is the soloist and when he does get going the emotion is strong, if short of overwhelming. The programme opener is the suite from Britten’s greatest failure, his Coronation opera Gloriana that was hooted out of Covent Garden in 1953. Its mock-Tudor façade, complete with morris dances, galliards and madrigals (soloist: Robert Murray) remain unconvincing as ever. The opera is getting a revival at Houston, Texas. Maybe that’s what it needs. I’m heading back to the Sea Interludes.

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Three Mahler CDs

4th symphony
(Exton)
**

The Austrian Manfred Honeck has, on this evidence, much to learn in Mahler. He conducts the fourth symphony with exaggerated concern for beauty – even in the gypsy fiddle episode that is mean to sound ominous and ugly. The Pittsburgh Symphony are on top form, glorious in the great adagio, and the Korean soprano Sunhae Im knows no fear in the finale.

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4th symphony: Erwin Stein reductio
(Somm)
****

Scaled back to a dozen instruments for one of Arnold Schoenberg’s private concerts, this skeletal version is ;layed with great razzle-dazzle by musicians from the Orchestra of the Swan, under David Curtis, with Heather Shipp (a little too rich) as the finale soloist. The adagio, in particular, is perfectly shaped. Shipp comes off much better in Davis Matthews’ reduction of Berlioz’s Nuits d’été in a disc almost overstuffed with good things.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical






2nd symphony
(ICA Classics)
***

William Steinberg was a formidable Mahlerian and this archive retrieval of a 1965 Cologne concert is well worth hearing, if only for its crisp tempi and commendable lack of self-indulgence. The soloists Stefania Woylowicz and Anna Delorie go all warbly and the local chorus is alarmingly ragged, but the apotheosis comes off regardless. Apart from mishandling the offstage instruments and over-miking the harp, the radio recording sounds good for its age.

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February 28, 2011

Rachmaninov: Paganini Rhapsody and 2nd concerto
(DG)
*****

Anyone who doubted that Yuja Wang is the real deal will be bowled over by this release. Rachmaninov is incredibly hard to perform with original character after a century of indelible recordings, starting with the composer himself. Yet the rising Chinese star, paired with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra and Claudio Abbado, brings breath-catching surprise to these two familiar pieces.

In the Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini there is an improvisatory freedom that makes you thing she’s about to interpolate a couple of variations of her own. In the 9th of the 24 she achieves meditative transcendence, leaving the orchestra to swirl around her, while in the over-romanticised 18th she eschews schmaltz and shmooze, finding her own introspective path to an elusive resolution.

There are no departing trains to be heard, either, in her account of the C minor concerto, no shared references to a distant past. The music is less pictorial than usual, played pure and with just a hint of Russian heaviness. Yuja ang is pictured on the cover in a Muscovite bear-hat, and in the booklet playing the piano in a snow covered field. Kitsch aside, comparisons to Lang Lang and Yundi Li, who she replaced on DG, are otiose. At 23, Yuja Wang is very much her own artist in her own kind of music.

Abbado mastered Rachmaninov as a very young man and treats the music with the same respect as Mahler did, making the eponymous orchestra an apt partner. The recording was taken live a year ago in Ferrara, Italy, with sound as good as it gets from Sid McLauchlan and Stephan Flock.

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Three more concerto CDs

C P E Bach
(Virgin)
****

Cellist Truls Mork returns from prolonged injury with three gems from Bach’s best son, one skippier than the next. His lovely big tone melds nicely with Les Violons du Roy, under Barnard Labadie. Why do we never hear these in concert? The sheer variety of musical invention will keep even the fat cats awake.

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Vivaldi: oboe concertos
(Cedille)
***

One Vivaldi concerto is about as much as I can take in a year, but Alex Klein’s vivacity is close to irresistible in these eight concertos, written for orphan girls in Venice. The mikes needed more distance and the performance is an 18 year-old festival gig, but this is still a fine disc to put on in an evening when you don’t know what to play.

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Lisa Batiashvili: Echoes of Time
(DG)
***

The young violinist’s statement CD opens with a beautifully internalised account of the first Shostakovich concerto, played with the Bavarian radio orchestra and Esa-Pekka Salonen. The rest is less appealing – snippets of Pärt and Rachmaninov accompanied by Helene Grimaud, a captivating introspection by Kancheli and a Shostakovich waltz. This is meant to be a portrait of the artist’s life. Lasting little over an hour, it should have told us more about her. There is room for another large piece. Blame the absent-minded DG producer: Dr Alexander Buhr.

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February 21, 2011

Grazyna Bacewicz
(DG)
****

Almost everything about this disc is wrong, except the music. Bacewicz (1909-69), a well-kept Polish secret, wrote music of quiet subtlety and profound introspection, adhering to no single style and managing to avoid interference or patronage by the Communist regime.

Little is known of her life. She started out as a violinist and led the radio orchestra in Warsaw for two years before the war. Abroad, she studied composition with Nadia Boulanger and violin with Carl Flesch. She stopped playing after a road smash. In addition to writing music, she published a number of short stories. She married, and had a daughter.

None of her work has appeared before on a major label and its release here is due entirely to the passion of Krystian Zimerman and four compatriots who join him in two quintets, separated by the self-assertive second piano sonata.

In such obscure circumstances, one might have expected an informative essay on Bacewicz, life and work, in the accompanying booklet. Instead, we get a publicity puff for how Zimerman came to record it and little more by way of introduction or analysis.

Record labels, at their best – remember their best? - exist to educate, entertain and disseminate. DG fails here even to make clear whether the recording is live or a studio performance. An executive producer is named. He ought to be locked in a small room with an empty revolver, or sent on holiday for a very long while.

The redeeming grace is the music, which becomes more hypnotic on repeated listening. Bacewicz is unafraid of shifting styles. The first quintet, dated, 1952, is generally tonal and occasionally minimal; it has an irresistible grave third movement. The second, from 1965, shimmers along a serial line in a manner reminiscent of the young Ligeti. In between, the sonata recalls the late Prokofiev. This is music that demands to be heard, in performances of great fervour that conjoin a master pianist with emerging artists Kaja Danczowska, Agata Szymczewska, Ryszard Groblewski and Rafal Kwiatkowski. The musicians have done their job. Shame that DG botched the chance to support their enterprise.

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Three more botched CDs

Schubert symphonies
(Tudor)
*

The Bavarian town of Bamberg has invested heavily in its British coductor, Jonathan Nott, producing his Mahler cycle on record and now his complete Schubert – with extra Schubertian bits by living composers. The CDs come in an oblong box with a lavishly illustrated book. Neither fists any conventional shelf. The performances are unremarkable. Why bother?

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical





Holst: The Planets
(Chandos)
**

Richard Hickox planned to record the complete Holst on Chandos before his sudden and untimely death. Sir Andrew Davis has stepped in, starting with the most hackneyed of Holst’s works in a decidedly low-voltage reading, bolstered by the Japanese Suite and Beni Mora. It won’t build much confidence in the series.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical






The Eight Seasons
(Signum)
*

Someone in the Scottish Ensemble had the bright idea to intersperse Vivaldi’s four with some smoky Argentine tangos by Piazzola. The idioms don’t match. The result, for musicians and listeners, is confusion. Should have been left on the drawing-board.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical







February 14, 2011

Prokofiev: 2nd violin concerto
(Naïve)
****

New talent on the Naïve label comes with an implicit guarantee that it hasn’t been manipulated, hyped, oversold or abused in any material or sexual way by the music industry. Naïve is a label that follows its French instincts with variable results, seldom less than delightful.

The soloist here is Geneviève Laurenceau, 33 years old and well established in France, where she is concertmaster of the orchestra in Toulouse, the best outside Paris. Her performance of the 1935 Prokofiev concerto is ever so slightly understated, and much the better for that. The virtuosic fast passages are not treated as firework displays and the tender middle movement is unaffectedly beautiful. The conductor is Tugan Sokhiev, who also delivers a deliciously well-sprung set of Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances – an interpretation that bears scant resemblance to the over-rich accounts of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

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Three more new-talent CDs

Prokofiev 2nd piano concerto/Ravel G major concerto
(Naïve)
***

Anna Vinnitskaya, Siberian winner of the 2007 Reine Elisabeth award in Brussels, is daringly slow in the Prokofiev and a tad too wild in Ravel. But there’s nothing casual or predictable in what she does. These are fine, mind-challenging interpretations. Gilbert Varga conducts the DSO Berlin.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com





Bach: Goldberg Variations
(Nimbus Alliance)
****

Nick Van Bloss gave up playing in 1994 in the throes of Tourrette’s Syndrome. After a book and TV doc, he returns to the piano in Bach’s mighty set, which he makes sound like a stroll in the park. Lovely phrasing and fabulous sound (Michael Haas in the producer), Bloss can clearly play anything without fear.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com






Oxana Shevchenko
(Delphian)
***

Winner of a Scottish competion, the Kazakh debutante conjures up a magical set of Ravel Miroirs and Shostakovich Preludes, interspersed with Mozart, Liszt and Musgrave. Clangorous at times, her sound is not always ingratiating but her digital skill is formidable and the last refinements of taste will come with time. Certainly one to watch.

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February 7, 2011

Mahler: 10th symphony, Deryck Cooke performing version
(Testament)
*****

Few records can be considered indispensable to understanding a work of music. This is one such.

In 1959, hearing in the canteen that the BBC were planning a cycle of Mahler symphonies for the centenary of the composer’s birth a staff writer called Deryck Cooke sought permission to present a spoken programme on the tenth symphony, left unfinished at Mahler’s death in 1911. Two movements were complete and three survived in thin sketches.

Cooke had been tinkering with the published sketches for some years. He was allowed a session with the Philharmonia Orchestra and conductor Berthold Goldschmidt to show the audience in a broadcast talk with excerpts how the symphony might have gone had Mahler lived to complete it. His venture was so successful that the score Cooke and Goldschmidt had constructed was included in the BBC cycle in December 1960, drawing condemnation from the veteran Mahlerian, Bruno Walter.

Alma, the composer’s widow, banned further performances, only to relent after hearing the tape. She furnished the pair with more pages of Mahler sketches, which were included in a complete version premiered by Goldschmidt with the London Symphony Orchestra at the BBC Proms in August 1964. The present set of three CDs contains Cooke’s broadcast talk and the two performances, 1960 and 1964.

The thrill of hearing them, having lived with so many subsequent performances, is hard to describe. History seeps through the speakers. The feeling is not so much of being at a world premiere as of looking over a composer’s shoulder. Cooke took care to stipulate that this was not a completion of Mahler’s tenth, rather a ‘performing version’ that illustrated how and where he might have proceeded had he lived.

Listening to his lecture, you can see how little guessing went into his work. Hearing these performances, one is daunted by Goldschmidt’s grasp of Mahlerian structure and by the daring he shows in elongating textures to the limits of player tolerance. Of the five movements, the finale feels more tentative and less imposing than recent accounts by Chailly and Rattle, but that is only to be expected in a premiere. After four hearings, I would not swap Goldschmidt’s performance for anyone’s and the unnamed LSO flautist in the finale deserves a George Cross for his courage. Creative and intuitive, this is an indelible album of music in the making.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical



And another Mahler 10

Tonhalle Orchestra, Zurich/David Zinman
(RCA)
*

Zinman has spoiled a thoroughly creditable Mahler cycle with Clinton Carpenter’s completion of the tenth symphony. Carpenter not only speculates through gaps in the score, he inserts snatches of previous symphonies – something Mahler seldom did, and never so blatantly. The mood throughout is emotionally prosaic, even plodding and the opening of the finale fails to chill. Do not try this at home.

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January 31, 2011

Villa Lobos Trio
(Oehms)
****

Here's a lesson in how to make a record that is more than the sum of its parts. The Vienna-based Villa-Lobos Trio were understandably keen to perform a work that boren their name. The one they chose was the Brazilian composer’s first in C-minor, dating from 1911 when he was just 24, four years before he made his public debut.

The C-minor trio is an amiable, gregarious piece, redolent of long sunsets in Rio de Janeiro with something tall and exotic on your café table; let your imagination roam. Insubstantial it may be, but for sybaritic pleasure it is hard to beat.

That’s 25 minutes down, less than half a record. So what next? Heitor Villa-Lobos could turn a small idea into a loquacious eternity and a whole disc of his trios might be more than patience could.

What this group have done is pair the immature Villa-Lobos with a piece known as The Four Seasons in Buenos Aires – a smoky tango meditation from the 1960s by the untiring, never-tiresome Astor Piazzola, always leading you into darker recesses of the city. The slow finale is irresistible. You do not go home alone.

Its equal in yearning is the concluding piece on the album - a Yumba (you read it right) by Lucio Bruno-Videla, from a celebrated tango by Osvaldo Pugliese. Singly, you might never be tempted to stop and listen to these pieces. Together, they fill a very happy hour – a most ingenious piece of programming.

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Three more smart programs

I Mercanti di Venezia
(Atma)
****

Shakespeare or Vivaldi? Neither. La Bande Montreal Baroque (dir. Eric Milnes) has put together a set of music by medieval Jewish composers, exiled from Spain in 1492 and finding temporary refuge in the great trading city of Venice. Salomone Rossi is the most famous and accomplished. His companions are Giovanni and Augustino Bassano, the younger of whom wound up as Musician in Ordinary for Recorders at the English court of Elizabeth I. There are some great lines on this set, beautifully spun by the Canadian ensemble.

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Arnold Schoenberg
(Praga digitalis)
***

Why did no-one think of this before? The Prazak Quartet have paired a tuneful Scherzo and Presto from the mid-1890s with Webern’s piano/string quartet version of the chamber symphony and Schoenberg’s masterful serial third quartet of 1926. The disc amounts to a tour d’horizons of a great composer’s workshop.

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Kodaly, Bartok, Ligeti
(Pentatone)
***

The connecting thread is Rumania – pieces by three great Hungarians evoking their nation’s contested borderlands. My favourite is the least known – Ligeti’s lyrical 1951 Romanian concerto, written in conformity with Stalin’s tonal rules but whispering odd dissatisfactions. Lawrence Foster conducts the Gulbenkian orchestra in a live concert, recorded with exceptional care and cleanliness by Job Maarse. Mihaela Costea solos in the Bartok first rhapsody.

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January 23, 2011

Gavin Bryars: New York
(GB Records)
****

Nobody puts more questions to your ears, or with better manners, than the British composer, 68 last week and still challenging the definition of what constitutes a musical work. The three on this disc involve five percussion instruments and go back to Bryars' 1984 opera Medée, where timps took the place of the first violins. The group that Bryars worked with at the time are now known as Percussions Claviers de Lyon and they play like Evelyn Glennie in a hall of mirrors. Nothing is beyond them.

The first two pieces – At Portage and Main, and One Last Bar Then Joe Can Sing – are pure quintet. The third, New York (2004), is for percussion and chamber orchestra. The music ranges from hypnotic to mundane, patches of enchanting melody lasping like life itself into stretches of routine. But even as he dulls your ear, Bryars is playing around at the outer edges of the music, morphing it into something else. Minimalist by general definition, his work is never merely repetitive. The region that Bryars explores is one unique to himself and Steve Reich. With orchestral accompaniment, it becomes a shimmering world of possibilities. Gerard Lecointe is the chief percussionist; Dominique Debart conducts.

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3 Baroque operas on CD

Thomas Arne: Artaxerxes
(Linn)
****

They knew how to have fun in Georgian London. Arne, composer of Rule Britannia, was disparaged by Handelians, but he could write a fizzing tune and gave his characters more depth than normal for the period. His first duet here, Fair Aurora, is a stunner. Elizabeth Watts and Caitlin Hulcup catch the ear, Ian Page conducts the Classical Opera Company after a 2009 Covent Garden performance.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com





Handel: Alexander’s Feast
(Delphian)
***

One of Handel’s less zappy efforts, its ‘happy, happy, happy’ aria always sounds effortful and the John Dryden ode overly worthy. There is no single must-have recording of the work, and this is not it. Ludus Baroque of Edinburgh sing and play well enough for Richard Neville-Towler, with soloists Sophie Bevan, Ed Lyon and William Berger. Too close miking exposes some lisps.

>Buy this CD at Ludus Baroque Emporium






Handel: The Triumph of Time and Truth
(Wigmore Hall Live)
**

Handel’s last oratorio, written in failing health, lacks a Eureka moment and needs a much quirkier presentation, to my taste, than Christian Curnyn's straitlaced concert.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical







January 17, 2011

Higdon/Tchaikovsky violin concertos
(DG)
****/***

Nigel Kennedy once recorded the Alban Berg concerto in Minnesota with a work by Dave Heath. The EMI performances were never released and the project went down in record lore as a definitive no-no. Young producers, still in short pants, were warned never to match a new concerto with an established masterpiece, no matter how celebrated the soloist.

Well, Hilary Hahn has prevailed on Deutsche Grammophon to break the rule here and the results of her obstinacy confound industry wisdom in unexpected ways. The composer Jennifer Higdon was one of Hahn’s teachers at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, where the teenager also studied the Tchaikovsky showpiece. The logic of this record is purely Hahn-biographical, no matter what justifications she claims for atmospheric affinities.

It is the new concerto that steals the ears. Higdon’s opening movement comes close to modernity in a shimmering dialogue with far-distant sounds (some made by knitting needles) at the edge of audibility. The chaconne-form second movement recalls the cornier elements of the Korngold concerto while the finale zips up rhythms of American country music. In all, it’s an appealing, well-made piece and one that I now want to hear performed live.

The Tchaikovsky, following on, does not recover from a slow start, the melodies over-ripe and painful to the back-teeth. Hanslick was right: sometimes its putrefaction does 'stink to the ear'. Hahn, aiming for wispy beauty, is less rigorous or vibrant than she was in the Higdon – let alone the recent Sibelius or Schoenberg concertos. Only in the race to the finish does she offer serious competition to Heifetz, Milstein, Mullova and Midori. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, throughout, are heard at their best on this record under their Russian chief conductor, Vasily Petrenko.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com



Three singer CDs

Diana Damrau: Strauss Lieder
(Virgin)
****

Christian Theilemann and the Munich Philharmonic provide perfect backing for a singer to swoop and dive through Richard Strauss at his fluffiest. All the double-cream favourites are here, plus some dry runs for Rosenkavalier arias and a dead steal (end of op 47/2) from Mahler’s Resurrection chorus. Hmmm….

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com





Kate Royal: A Lesson in Love
(EMI)
**

The English soprano in waiting – a hot bet for the Royal Wedding – runs through a mixed French, German, English bag, bookended by two low William Bolcom songs in which she stoops and just about conquers. Best picks are a rare Mrs Beach song (trk 14) and an Aaron Copland (26). Malcolm Martineau adds little zest to the accompaniment.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com






Natalie Dessay as Cleopatra: Arias from Handel’s Julius Caesar
(Virgin)
***

A bit breathless to start, Dessay does not quite outvamp Elizabeth Taylor with the asp, but there are enough hot moments to rumple your baroque collar and Emmanuelle Haim’s crisp harpsichord direction never lets the action flag.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com







January 10, 2011

Coming back for Seconds
(EMI/RCO Live)
*****/****

Fresh takes on the Resurrection by Simon Rattle in Berlin and Mariss Jansons in Amsterdam are furiously competitive and with very different approaches. Both men have recorded the work before, and with mixed results. Rattle, who made his name in a college performance of this symphony, won excessive raves for a 1986 Birmingham recording that was neither well balanced nor perfectly sung, the soloists being Arleen Auger and Janet Baker.

Jansons, one of the most thoughtful Mahler conductors, was over-deliberate in his 1990 Oslo recording for Chandos, with soloists Felicity Lott and Julia Hamari. Both conductors have kept the work at the heart of their repertoire and continued to give it considerable interpretative thought.

The opening of Rattle’s Berlin performance is daringly taut, the lower strings stretched to endurance point and the woodwind setting off at an ambulant stroll. It’s a calculated risk and it comes off with maximum razzle in the faux-funereal narrative of the Totenfeier section.

The middle movements lack Viennese spring in the dance rhythms but both soloists – Kate Royal and (especially) Magdalena Kozena - attain a numinous mysticism, the chorus achieve an unbelievable ppp and the buildup to redemption is irresistible. The live recording was made last October and is compelling evidence of the refinement and excitement that Rattle has brought to Berlin’s musical powerhouse.

Jansons is determinedly less subtle, addressing the Totenfeier with narrative pathos and taking Mahler’s naiveties without critical scepticism. His is, compared to Rattle’s ironic tweaks, a traditional, literal interpretation, all the more fundamentalist for use of revised score that corrects some 500 errors in the common printed version.

The soloists, Ricarda Merbeth and Bernards Fink, are a shade pallid and the Netherlands Radio Choir is no match for Berlin’s finest. Nevertheless, Jansons’ blind faith overwhelms all caveats and the conclusion is appropriately cathartic. These, together with Järvi’s Frankfurt performance last year, are the great Mahler Seconds of the epoch.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical


More Mahler


The Boy’s Magic Horn
(DG)
*****

Thomas Hampson, with ten crack Viennese players and the meticulous Mahler scholar Renate Stark-Voit, has created a completely new version of the songbook that corresponds closer than any other to Mahler’s intention.

Hampson sings the set not in published order but in the thematic connections that Mahler sought, achieving a coherence lacking in prior recordings. His small ensemble reflects a particular period style – the kind of living-room tableau that Mahler write in his previous Klagende Lied.

Hampson is in fine, rich voice, full of witty linguistic quirks and elegantly bent musical lines. His bold and intelligent initiative, financed by the transparent Hampsong Foundation and recorded in the Austrian countryside at Raiding, must be regarded as definitive. As well as lots of fun.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com


January 3, 2011

Russian Avant-Garde - Live
(Melodiya)
****

In the final freeze-over of the Brezhnev regime, artists began testing the façade of total state control for cracks and fissures. One of the most enterprising pushers of challenging new music was the conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky On April 15, 1982, he blew a major breach in the system with a historic concert of three non-conformist composers, played – irony of ironies - by the USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra with a bunch of Communist bigwigs in the front rows.

The overture was Peinture by Edison Denisov, a composer blacklisted at the time for illicit western contacts and forbidden doctrines. The concerto (soloist: Oleg Kagan) was Offertorium, a disturbing meditation on Bach by the mystic Sofia Gubaidulina, who was banned by the ministry from foreign travel.

After the interval, the ministry orchestra played The Census List by Schnittke, a mocking, caustic, eclectic suite of extracted theatrical interludes. As a finale, all three composers collaborated on a march that blew loud raspberries into Party faces. The audience rose and roared.

Even at this distance in time and outlook, one can still hear how provocative this must have sounded to the apparatchiks in the front rows. But with Brezhnev almost dead and the future uncertain, there was not much they could do about it. The concert was the first step forward for Russian music since the death of Shostakovich. It has gone, deservedly, into legend and its power is undiminished on record. A warning from history.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical






Three more Russian CDs

Mieczyslaw Weinberg: Children’s Notebooks, 1st piano sonata
(CPO)
****

2011 could be breakthrough year for Weinberg, the composer closest to Shostakovich. Following the 2010 Bregenz and Warsaw success of his post-Auschwitz opera, The Passenger, there will be a first UK production for his Gogol opera, The Portrait. This record, by Dublin-based Elisaveta Blumina, starts a cycle of his piano music with two works from his 20s as a wartime refugee from Nazi-occupied Poland. Light as the kiddies’ pieces are, there is a melancholic tinge that Blumina draws out with great finesse; the sonata, dated 1940, is powered by fear and defiance. Strong stuff.

>Buy this CD at JPC





Shostakovich: 24 piano preludes, piano quintet
(Transart)
***

The composer premiered his preludes in 1934, his quintet a decade later. These French performances avoid ominous overlays of history. David Kadouch has a sparkly tone and the Ardeo Quartet are unfailingly elegant in the quintet, the cellist Joelle Martinez exceptionally so.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com






Giya Kancheli: Music for Stage and Screen
(ECM)
****

Played on the bandoneon and readily mistaken for Piazzola, these mournful pieces by the exiled Georgian composer are instantly hypnotic. Among other melodies, are themes Kancheli wrote for Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, and several Shakespeare plays.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com







December 12, 2010

Bryn Terfel: Carols and Christmas Songs
(DG)
***

A seasonal release from the Welsh baritone is becoming as much of a December fixture as mulled wine, evoking an equally ambivalent response. Terfel has made himself larger than life. Music needs sometimes to be small and still.

The menu here is alternately hit and miss. Sensitive accounts of O Holy Night and In the Bleak Midwinter interleave with ham-fisted arrangements of Mary’s Boy Child and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. A mocked up ‘duet’ with Bing Crosby in White Christmas does the living singer no favours, unable to bend a line like the master of smooch.

Terfel’s gifts are heard to best effect in an Austrian hymn ‘Still, still, still,’ and, unexpectedly, in a Spanish duet with the out-of-form Rolando Villazon. Several songs are repeated in the Welsh language on a ‘bonus’ disc. The Orchestra of Welsh National Opera is conducted by Tecwyn Evans and the sleeve notes list four Deutsche Grammophon producers, none of whom can have had much influence on the content. It’s a Bryn Terfel production, like it or not.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com


5 more Christmas CDs

Nuit sacrée – Holy night
(Naïve)
****

Laurence Equibley and Concerto Köln offer a run of orchestral delights from Pachelbel’s Canon through the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria – exquisite singing from Nathalie Stutzmann – via Saint-Saens, Franck, Mozart and Adolphe Adam to a serene carol by the near-forgotten Augusta Holmès. It is rare to find so intelligent a compilation, or one that bears rehearing once the tree has been taken down.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical

Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker
(EMI)
***

Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic deliver the most perfectly played and vividly realised Nutcracker in the work’s 118-year history. It is still much too sweet for me, but that’s down to personal taste. I cannot imagine anyone who loves Nutcracker being able to resist this performance.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com




Plum Pudding
(Champs Hill)
***

Felicity Lott and the Joyful Company of Singers have fun with an evening of festive songs and secular lessons, the latter narrated by Gabriel Woolf. The Holly and the Ivy comes off best.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com






Britten: A Ceremony of Carols
(Signum)
***

Clear as a jingle-bell, the NYCoS National Girls Choir take Britten’s unadorned carols without fear or sentiment in a translucent reading, conducted by Christopher Bell. Even lovelier is the companion piece, Elizabeth Poston’s English Day Book.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com






J S Bach: Christmas Oratorio, arranged for jazz band
(Signum)
*

The Kings Singers and WDR jazz band make mincemeat of a devotional masterpiece. There is no coherent excuse for such cultural vandalism.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical









December 6, 2010

CD of the Year

Rossini’s Stabat Mater
(EMI)

With the last of 2010 release clattering through the door, I’m taking time out to look back on a year of unexpected reversals. Two classical corporates, Sony and Warner, rose from the dead. Two others, DG and Decca, publicly renewed their classical vows after an era of adulteration. EMI looks likely to be removed from the hands of its hedge fund owners and wantonly broken up.

Tiny labels proliferated, their products unnoticed by mass media. Classical recording is becoming like romantic novels – thousands of new works that barely scratch the surface of public attention. How classical records avoid becoming pulp fiction is the conundrum of the coming decade.

Of some 300 new releases that I sampled, there was a glut of forgettable Chopin and some cherishable Schumann. Two big tenors and a baritone sounded like they ought to take a record sabbatical and there seemed to be more cellists around than repertoire for them to play.

The best records of 2010 spring instantly to mind. Paavo Järvi’s interpretation of Mahler’s second symphony (Virgin) ranks among the most overwhelming on record, as does the archive retrieval of a Klaus Tennstedt concert (LPO Live). In a flurry of Ravel, Pierre Laurent Aimard’s Cleveland concertos (DG) came out top. There was an arresting account of the Bartok violin concertos from Arabella Steinbacher (Pentatone) and the Artemis Quartet were essential listening in Beethoven (Virgin).

Gavin Bryars wrote breath-taking music for his own label (GB Records). The Andrzej Panufnik project on CPO just got better and better and a trickle of music by Mieczyslaw Weinberg should turn into a positive flood in the coming year as his opera, The Passenger, gains international co-productions.

Spoilt for choice, I have no hesitation in choosing EMI’s production of Rossini’s Stabat Mater as my record of the year. Not just for its luxury female pairing of Anna Netrebko and Joyce Di Donato, nor even for Lawrence Brownlee and Ildebrando d’Arcangelo, who sound uncannily like the young Pavarotti and Ghiaurov. The thrill of this record is that it gets everything right – the balance, the tempi, the propulsion, the tension. Antonio Pappano conducts, in Rome. There has been no better recording of the work in 100 years.

>Buy Norman Lebrecht's CD of the year at Amazon.com







November 29, 2010

Walton: violin concerto, first symphony
(Nimbus Alliance)
****

While speaking at Yale a couple of weeks back, I was given a new release of William Walton’s two most successful works. Why Yale? Because the composer’s papers are lodged at the Beineke Library and the local New Haven Symphony are recording a four-year cycle of the works from manuscript under their conductor, William Boughton, a grandson of the English composer Rutland Boughton.

I hear no obvious divergences in these performances from established tradition, no eureka moments. What I like, though, is the clarity and directness of the orchestral sound, uncluttered by the forced reverence so often heard from British orchestras and unbothered by the rackety circumstances in which both works were created. The symphony was first performed in three movements in December 1934 when Walton was unable to conceive a finale, while the concerto was paid for by Jascha Heifetz and written for his dazzling finger-speed, excluding more contemplative interpreters.

Kurt Nikkanen subverts that perception with a reading of leisurely defiance with occasional bursts of ferocity. Boughton treats the symphony as if it were through-composed, sustaining the line through all four movements. The Sibelian character is underlined at the expense of the stressed Englishness of past recordings and the whole is more convincing than the sum of its parts. Remarkable that a regional orchestra can play it so well.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical


 

Three more English CDs

Walton: cello concerto
(Signum)
****

This is, believe it or not, a world premiere. Jamie Walton is the first to record the 1975 revision of his namesake’s concerto. The material difference is a happier ending, revised at the request of Gregor Piatigorsky. I’m not sure it’s a more credible ending, but you can hear the original for comparison in a bonus track. The Philharmonia orchestra play with sweet serenity for conductor Alexander Briger. The other work on disc is the first Shostakovich concerto.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical





John Taverner: Towards Silence
(Signum)
**

Another world premiere. Four string quartets and a Tibetan temple bowl are the components of this new work, meditative but not static or lacking in development. As always, Taverner requires an active suspension of disbelief, a loan of your soul for just over half an hour.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical






Let Beauty Awake
(Atma Classique)
***

The young Canadian baritone Joshua Hopkins gives a beautifully assured reading of Vaughan Williams’s Songs of Travel, followed by an intriguing batch of composers – Paul Bowles, Samuel Barber and the Canadian Srul Irving Gluck. A really fine debut recital. Jerad Mosbey accompanies.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com







November 22, 2010

Brahms 1st symphony
(Oehms)
****

The symphonies of Brahms have been slipping down the performance charts in the present century. Cycles are scarce and recent recordings have added little to a chain of interpretation dominated by Walter, Furtwängler, Karajan, Abbado and Jansons. The striking points of this new release are that it is played by the Hamburg Philharmonic, the composer’s home town orchestra, and conducted by a music director who, while well established in the opera house, has avoided symphonic recording until now.

Simone Young is general music director in Hamburg. It must have seemed a good idea to counterbalance her first Ring cycle with the C-minor symphony of Wagner’s arch-rival, premiered in the same year, 1876, and the results are never less than refreshing. What I like most about her shaping of the C minor symphony is her refusal to impose a dogmatic authority. The lines are flexible, allowing soloists in every department of the orchestra to assert an individual view, none more enchanting than the concertmaster’s sweet soliloquies in the second movement.

In the finale, Young restrains the cathartic big tune, lingering among the lovelier details of the preceding ceremony. There is much in her reading that suggests church ritual – not in any religious sense so much as in the serenity of structure. When the concluding melody emerges, it exudes a benign optimism in the state of the universe, all being for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Elements of a local Brahms tradition are audible in the orchestral sound and the performance takes its place easily among the most memorable of recent years.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical


 

Three high pitchers

Bejun Mehta: Ombra cara
(Harmonia Mundi)
***

One of the most rounded musicians of the moment, Mehta was a cellist and Sony record producer before finding his voice as a counter-tenor. It’s a beautifully modeulated instruments, sometimes too pitch-perfect for Rene Jacobs’s Freiburg baroque orchestra, and the Handel arias he sings are not the obvious ones. Best, for me, is the Rodelinda scene with soprano Rosemary Joshua, an apogee of grief.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com





Philippe Jaroussky: Caldara in Vienna
(Virgin Classics)
***

The French counter-tenor wants to do for the Venetian Antonio Caldara what he has done before for Johann Christian Bach, namely to quicken interest in lost operas. A cleverer writer for voice than his contemporary Antonio Vivaldi, Caldara packs his arias with emotion and decoration – fascinating in his pre-Mozart assault on La clemenza di Tito. Emmanuelle Haim dircts Concerto Köln and Jaroussky sings sensationally.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com






Natalie Dessay: Amor
(EMI)
****

The French soprano, irresistibly frisky in Donizetti and Massenet, cut her milk teeth on Viennese cream cakes during a Staatsoper apprenticeship. She is deliciously at home in Richard Strauss, blow-me-down-beautiful, whether in the slippery Brentano Songs or in the big operas – Ariadne, Arabella and Rosenkavalier. Felicity Lott, Angelika Kirschläger and Sophie Koch do the support roles; Antonio Pappano conducts the orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. No sweet tooth should walk up without this in their Christmas stocking. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf must be greening with envy in her grave.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com







November 15, 2010

Sibelius/Schoenberg: string quartets
(AVI-music)
****

Sibelius wrote just one string quartet, which sits uneasily among his works. Schoenberg wrote four that sit uneasily with audiences. Schoenberg’s first is in D-minor, the same key as Sibelius’s. His was written in 1905, the Finn’s in 1909. By conjoining them, the Tetzlaff Quartet accentuate unheard affinities and divergences that swirled around on the eve of Arnold Schoenberg’s great breach with tonality, which occurred in his second quartet.

The Sibelius quartet has an edginess that stems from being written on the road, while he was conducting his symphonies in Paris, London and Berlin. Lacking the smooth finish of his recent third symphony, it takes the listener deeper into the composer’s nervous personality. At one point in the third movement, he writes the Latin words ‘Voces intimae’ (intimate voices) above a quiet E-minor chord; no-one knows what he meant. There are also echoes of the opening of Smetana’s Ma Vlast. Sibelius had found a personal style with orchestras; he never found it with string quartets.

Schoenberg’s first quartet revives the danger, eroticism and barely suppressed rage of his breakthrough work, Transfigured Night. In a single movement of 45 minutes and without a singable tune, the quartet gave audiences no relief or encouragement and was booed at its February 1907 premiere in Vienna. A century later, its capacity to disturb can still be felt in the intensity of this interpretation by Christian Tetzlaff’s ensemble. Played after Sibelius’s half-articulated anxieties, it dances with evident agitation on the very lip of a volcano.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com


 

Three Hungarian delicacies

Bartók: violin concertos 1&2
(Pentatone)
****

Arabella Steinbacher’s first entry in the second concerto eschews 1930s jitters and settles for seduction in one of the most appealing performances in years, serene and innately musical throughout. In the 1908 first concerto suppressed by the composer and posthumously rediscovered, she finds an almost Korngold-like lyricism. Marek Janowski conducts the Suisse Romande orchestra.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com





Bartok: solo sonata, 1944
(Nimbus)
***

Ruth Palmer is a young British violinist carving out a style. Here, she pairs the late Bartók sonata with Bach’s second Partita, raptly played in Temple Church, London. She calls the album Hidden Acoustics and there’s much to enjoy in her dialogue with a huge empty space. But Bartók’s caustic commentary sits awkwardly with Bach’s.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical






Kopatchinskaja Rapsodia
(Naïve)
***

A brilliant idea on paper, Patricia Kopatchinskaja and four friends almost bring off the impossible, interspersing Balkan folk and gypsy music with works by Enescu, Ligeti, Kurtag and Ravel in an effort to expose common roots. Entertaining and relentless, like a ten-day wedding party, the point wears a bit thin by the 15th banquet. The service, however, is flawless to the last.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com







November 8, 2010

Ne Me Refuse Pas!
(Naïve)
****

Don’t dump me! is the mezzo showstopper from Hérodiade, one of Massenet’s many ephemeral operas, hugely popular at the turn of the 20th century and long since lapsed. It cast a contralto as heroine, a Parisian device common to Didon in Berlioz’s Trojans, Dalila in Saint-Saens’ Samson et Dalila, Charlotte in Massenet’s Werther and, most sensationally, Carmen in Bizet’s masterpiece.

Liberated from the soprano’s shadow, the mezzo as diva is allowed to soar and soften. To hear a succession of these heroines is to explore an alternative range of vocal possibilities.

Marie-Nicole Lemieux, a Canadian with a big concert career, delivers the Massenet title aria on this album, along with the inevitable Dalila, Didon and Carmen, as well as some operas so obscure that only a librarian at the Bib. Nat. might recognise them.

Jacques Fromental Halévy, remembered chiefly for La Juive (and as Bizet’s father-in-law), contributes an 1843 aria from his drama on the life of King Charles VI. André Wormser (1851-1926) has a charming pre-Straussian take on Clytemnestra, and Luigi Cherubini, rival to Berlioz, pops up with a heart-melter from Medée.

Knowing that none of these operas is ever likely to steal another evening of our lives gives the payload arias a peculiar poignancy and pleasure. Fabien Gabel conducts the national orchestra of France and the Paris Young Chorus in the year’s most enjoyable recital disc.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com


 

Three Russian packages

Path
(Louth CMS)
****

Ireland is not renowned for new music but some East-Euros who moved there are making a fabulous noise. This showcase contains two chunks of Chang Music by Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky (definitely one to watch), an Arvo Pärt world premiere and Eternal Peace by Polina Medyulanova that induced tears. Much else, besides. The Carducci Quartet lead a great performing team.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical





Live in Moscow: Rachmaninov, The Bells
(Warner)
***

The closing concert of the first Rostropovich festival contained two of Slava’s favourites, Glazunov’s chant du ménestrel and Rachmaninov’s kolokola. José Serebrier conducts with great sense of occasion.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com






Weinberg: string quartets 5, 9 and 14
(CPO)
***

I cannot get enough of Shostakovich’s best friend, Mieczyslaw Weinberg. These three quartets, dated 1945, 1963 and 1978, run on parallel tracks to the DSCH cycle, a fervid commentary urgently played by the Danel Quartet.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com







November 1, 2010

Rossini: Stabat Mater
(EMI)
*****

Neither sacramental nor sacrilegious, Rossini’s Stabat Mater belongs to no recognised canon. Half-written in 1831 at a time when Rossini was going into operatic retirement before his 40th birthday, he handed it to Giovanni Tadolino for completion and did not repossess it for another decade.

Nobody liked it, apart from the public. Richard Wagner issued a celebrated sneer and lesser critics found fault with its sensual arias. Such acclaim as it earned would be eclipsed two decades later by Verdi’s magniloquent and politically consequential Requiem, leaving Rossini’s Stabat Mater a repertoire orphan, never wholly fulfilled on record.

Its demands are near-inhuman – four exposed voices of great perfection and a chorus of equivalent character. Every recording is flawed in some respect, the finest being Ferenc Fricsay’s unstarry 1955 production from Berlin and Istvan Kertesz’s Decca team of Pavarotti, Hans Sotin, Pilar Lorengar and Yvonne Minton.

On first and repeated impression, I believe this new release beats the lot. Test, for sheer spine chills, the interplay between Ildebrando d’Arcangelo and the Santa Cecilia chorus and orchestra in the Eja, Mater (track 5), a dramatic tour-de-force with a numinous payload. Tenor Lawrence Brownlee sounds uncannily like the very young Pavarotti and the two women, Anna Netrebko and Joyce Dionato, pitch for close harmony rather than cat-fight. The voices are sufficiently different to sustain intense interest and the rapt backdrop in unaccompanied passages is a triumph for producer David Groves and sound engineer, Jonathan Allen.

The engineer of all these mortal souls is Antonio Pappano who, avoiding cheap thrills, conducts the work as a meeting point of baroque simplicity and romantic indulgence, a monumental cultural moment. Pappano, music director at Covent Garden, has learned to wear his authority lightly, releasing others to make the noise. Here, his touch is felt at every turn, the hand on the tiller of a tremendous performance.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com


 

3 mixed concertos

Ravel, Stravinsky, Gershwin
(Atma)
**

How unlucky is this? Ian Parker plays the third recording of the Ravel G-major in as many weeks. Speeds are thrillingly high but the young Canadian has yet to discover the contemplation of Aimard or the flourish of Bavouzet, his immediate rivals. He gives nice accounts of Stravinsky’s Capriccio and Gershwin’s concerto in F, rather noisily accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra and Michael Francis.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com





Légende: works for saxophone and orchestra
(Onyx)
***

It’s always the same French four – Debussy, D’Indy, Florent Schmitt and Henri Tomasi. Theodore Kerkezos adds a certain Athenian sultriness and saves his frisky best for the filler, Paule Maurice’s Provencale suite. The LSO are on duty again, distantly under Yuri Simonov.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com





Young Midori
(Newton)
****

Aged 15, Midori recorded Paganini’s first concerto and two Tchaikovsky pieces with Leonard Slatkin and the LSO. Reissued on an independent Dutch label, it’s a breath-taking performance, too closely miked but demonstrating beyond shadow of dissent the difference between true young talent and the common run of showboat debutants.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical







October 23, 2010

Anne-Sofie Von Otter, Brad Mehldau
(Naïve)
***

You never know what to expect next of the Swedish mezzo. One minute she’s going for baroque, next she’s hanging out at Waterloo with the boys from Abba or doing Swedish moodies. Jazz pianist Brad Mehldau, already picked up by Renee Fleming, is Anne-Sofie's new best friend, writing a song cycle for her to perform at Carnegie Hall and leading her into unfamiliar pastures, not all of them obviously fertile.

In the first of two discs, she sings seven Brad songs with been-there, done-that air. I was greatly taken with the post-minimalist We Met at the End of the Party and left practically squirming by the wistfully counter-feminist, Because.

Crediting Mehldau with leading her into the darker shades of French chanson, Anne-Sofie sings a Léo Ferré number with appropriate tendresse before missing the integral grit of Barbara and trying to redeem Michael Legrand from the grip of commercial mediocrity. The most affecting tracks on this second disc, finely accompanied by Mehldau, are the two non-French closers: the Beatles’ Blackbird and Leonard Bernstein’s Some Other Time. That’s the thing about Otter – she often surprises and always leaves you wanting more.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com


 

Unexpected concertos

Mario Castelnuovo-Tedeco: 2nd piano concerto
(Capriccio)
**

Written in 1936 and premiered by the NY Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall, the Italian composer's sounds like an émigré job application in Hollywood. Lots of glittery runs in the first movement, some mood snooze in the second and clippety-clop in the finale. Pietro Massa plays, Alessandro Crudele conducts the Berlin Symphony Orch. Not bad, but then again...

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Tansman, Boulanger, Gershwin
(Naïve)
***

Alexandre Tansman, a Pole in Paris, wrote his second concerto in the slipstream of Rhapsody in Blue. It shares affinities of colour and temperament with Gershwin (also played here), but none of the bite. The other piece on disc is a 1912 concerto fantasy by the great piano teacher Nadia Boulanger, gloomy and virginal. David Greilsamer plays with eyes-wide curiosity; Steven Sloane conducts a French radio orchestra.

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Debussy, Ravel
(Chandos)
***

The Fantasie for piano and orchestra is Debussy in the chrysalis, not fully formed. The opening movement glitters glassily and the adagio fails to simulate a ny recognisable emotion. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet gives it his best shot, with Yan-Pascal Tortelier conducting. The next tracks are sheer bad luck - a fine account of the two Ravel concertos in the same month as Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s simply unassailable Cleveland performances with Pierre Boulez. A successful record is all about timing.

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October 17, 2010

Charlie’s last Mahler
(Signum)
***

Sir Charles Mackerras, who died this summer, was a wonderful interpreter of most things Czech but he never, for me, captured the cadences of Gustav Mahler, who is more German than Czech and more Jewish in his rhythms and inflections than either. I heard Mackerras conduct symphonies 1,4 and 5 and felt essential ironies were missing from his interpretation.

The persuasive difference in this 2006 concert performance of the fourth symphony from the smaller hall of London’s South Bank is that Mackerras addresses Mahler here from a playful perspective, shrugging off any buried messages as composer’s whimsy and enjoying the passing beauties as he might on a slow train ride to the mountains. There is something to be said for this approach, so long as it does not degenerate into an outright Karajan-like beauty cult. There is also much to enjoy.

The massed strings of the Philharmonia have seldom sounded silkier after the opening jingle and the third movement is tranquil as a child staring at the skies on a cloudless day. There is a rich tone to the orchestra and if soprano Sarah Fox is a little florid in the finale that, too, is in keeping with the determinedly sunny outlook that the conductor imposes on the fourth symphony. I don’t have to agree with Mackerras on Mahler, but his consistency and integrity are unimpeachable and this record reminds me how much I miss those virtues since his death.

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2 CDs of Mahler songs

Susan Graham, Thomas Hampson
(Avie)
***

Michael Tilson Thomas allows his singers to luxuriate, slowing the tempo to a point where the texts lose traction. Hampson is over-sophisticated in the early songs and Graham over-romantic in the Rückert set. Plenty of lovely moments, but the conductor needed more of a grip.

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Christiane Oelze, Michael Volle
(Oehms)
****

The Gürzenich orchestra of Cologne has renewed itself under Markus Stenz as a Mahler orchestra of the first rank. The Knaben Wunderhorn songs have a Rhineland flow and the tempi feel organic. Both singers are intent on maintaining dialogue, not scoring points or courting applause. Even the sleeves notes are coherent and the sound – credit: Dieter Oehms, Jens Schünemann – is faultless. This release is almost a front-runner for the Wunderhorns, challenging Quasthoff/Otter (DG) for top pick.

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October 11, 2010

Ravel: piano concertos, Miroirs
(DG)
****

Maurice Ravel’s two concertos are seldom recorded together, because they fill only 40 minutes of disc space, nor does the left-hand concerto often appear ahead of the popular G major. Written for the war-wounded Viennese steel heir Paul Wittgenstein, the left-hand concerto was poorly played on first performance and never achieved parity with its jazzy cohort. When Pierre Boulez last recorded the pair, with Krystian Zimerman as soloist, the G-major came inevitably first.

This recording, with Pierre-Laurent Aimard and the Cleveland Orchestra, amounts to an act of restitution. Never have I heard such conviction in the left-hand concerto, scintillating from start to finish, from the growly Rhinegold-like opening to the shocking tramp of marching boots at the close, reminiscent of Mahler’s sixth symphony. Aimard, for all his left-sidedness, holds centre stage in this production and the Clevelanders contribute breath-taking solos. The atmosphere is neither French nor jazzy-American but something close to the Viennese post-War decadence of La Valse, a civilisation on the lip of a volcano.

The G-major concerto is, as you’d expect, impeccable and impressive, but the voltage suffers an imperceptible drop after the left-hand fireworks. In the glittering Miroirs, Aimard is poised, pellucid, hypnotic, his Sad Birds fluttering between Schoenberg and Messiaen, a magical interpretation.

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3 JS Bach CDs

Sonatas and Partitas
(Naïve)
***

There is no more severe test of a violinist than Bach’s great set and the Armenian-born Sergey Khachatryan acquits himself with full honours. He knows the value of a whispering tone, his speeds are prodigious and his grip on the ear is adhesive. He has yet to find the charm of a Milstein or the twinkle of a Perlman, but this joins Ilya Kaler among the best recent recordings.

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p>Trio sonatas
(Avie)
***

The Brook Street Band made its name with Handel, where the wit is fast and funny. Bach is a tougher smile to crack and it takes a couple of tracks before the four women get his measure. That said, the baroque sound is exquisite - sleek, not squeak – and the tempi are hot-coal dancefloor, hopping fast.

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Violin concertos
(Channel Classics)
****

Rachel Podger leads six players of the Brecon Baroque in a dangerously anorexic nibble at the great dialogues. It speaks volumes for the players’ skill that the economy seldom shows and the engagement is, if anything, more intense than full band. I don’t know about the players, but my nails were bitten to the quick. The risks they take, with nowhere to hide, are richly rewarding.

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October 4, 2010

Fried: The Emigrants
(Capriccio)
****

Oskar Fried was the last of Gustav Mahler’s close musical friends. A Berliner who scored an instant hit with a Nietzschean ode, The Drunkard’s Song, Fried in 1905 conducted Mahler’s second symphony under the composer’s eye and with the young Otto Klemperer as assistant. In 1924, he conducted the first Mahler on record.

An oddball who once worked in a circus and bred dogs for a living, Fried fell out with Mahler over his low estimation of Alma’s talents (see Why Mahler?, p 204). Nevertheless, Mahler regarded him as a harbinger of the musical future. So to hear Fried’s music, which fell into disuse after his death in Soviet exile in July 1941, is tantamount to obtaining a firsthand insight into Mahler’s tastes and expectations.

This ice-breaker of a record is full of derivations, few of them Mahlerian. A prelude and fugue for string orchestra takes its cue from Bach and its syntax from Max Reger. Transfigured Night sits between Schumann and Richard Strauss, abjuring Schoenberg and the tonal edginess he applied to the same Rochard Dehmel poem. A concert suite from Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel is pleasant and unremarkable.

The big piece here is a melodrama for speaking voice and orchestra on the theme of homelessness – a Mahlerian trademark. Taking a text by the Belgian poet Emile Verhaeren, adapted by Stefan Zweig, Fried engaged full-on with a burning social issue – the flight of millions of Europeans to a new life in America and elsewhere. Hope and tragedy intermingle with irony and despair. Both music and recitation – stunningly delivered by the irreplaceable Salome Kammer, a cross between Lenya and Dietrich – are compelling, chilling and disturbingly close to heart. Matthias Foremny conducts the Berlin radio symphony orchestra with blazing conviction. The only flaws are a feeble booklet photo of Fried and a poorly-translated essay. But these are minor quibbles; the Emigrants demands to be heard live with Salome in a concert hall.

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Two Lutoslawski CDs

3rd symphony &c
(Chandos)
****

Luto has fallen out of fashion since his death 16 years ago and the ENO conductor Edward Gardner is repairing that fault with a thrilling BBC Symphony Orchestra cycle. The third symphony shudders Ligeti-like into life, Chain-3 consoles as it unsettles and the 1950-54 Concerto for Orchestra surges with an optimistic vitality unheard on past recordings. This is a genuinely fresh reading, a new beginning.

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Lutoslawski’s last concert
(Naxos)
***

The composer conducted for the last time on October 24, 1993 in Toronto, Canada, and was recorded by the CBC. The programme consisted of his Partita, Chain-1 and 2 and the little-heard Chantefleurs et Chantefables, from poems by Robert Desnos, with Valdine Anderson as soloist. The New Music Concerts Ensemble do their supple best and Fujiko Imashi is intense in Partita, but the sense of occasion gets the better of the players at times, softening the focus and leaving little more than souvenir value.

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September 26, 2010

Wagner: Parsifal
(Mariinsky)
****

Just when I had decided to have done with Parsifal for the next few years, along came Valery Gergiev and changed my mind. The Mariinsky Orchestra’s playing in the opening prelude of the opera is so serene and organic, so lacking in the forced reverence we hear from German orchestras, that one is seduced all over again by megalo-Wagner’s late attempt to invent his own religion.

Everything in the performance is grounded in the pit. The singing is impeccable, yet almost secondary. It is the woodwind that teases the ear as Gurnemanz (Rene Pape) awakens the world and the strings that steal Amfortas’s (Evgeny Nikitin) gentle entry. Gary Lehman is Parsifal, Violeta Urmana a luminous Kundry. Taken from June 2009 concert performances in St Petersburg, the sound production by James Mallinson’s team is discreet and immaculate. Along with the Boulez Bayreuth set, this is the ultimate Parsifal for the Parsifal agnostic.

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3 rising pianists

Llyr Williams
(Signum)
***

Yet another recording of Musorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, without commercial or promotional purpose. For all the little felicities the Welshman brings, he cannot steal this showpiece from past masters. You have to wait for track 19 before Williams comes into his own in the delicious pentatones of Debussy’s Estampes, followed by two Liszt travelogues and a Bach transcription, where he has much to say.

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Shai Wosner
(Onyx)
***

Pairing Brahms with Schoenberg, the Israeli sets out his intellectual credentials. The seven Brahms fantasies, op 116, are delicately interspersed with Schoenberg’s six little piano pieces, opus 19, one of them written on returning from Mahler’s funeral. At either end of the disc is a big piece – Schoenbgerg’s 1925 piano suite and Brahms’s Handel variations, exquisitely played.

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Andrea Lucchesini
(Avie)
(****)

Strong on the singing line in Schubert’s Impromptus, the Italian never hits forte, maintaining a muted, brooding interpretation, almost a wounded tone. This is a healthy corrective to flashier performances, if you’re in the same mood.

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September 19, 2010

Quator Ebène: Fiction
(Virgin)
***

The Ebène Quartet, one of the best around, have taken to ending their recitals with pop encores. Great on a hot night in Aix, less admirable when anthologised on record as super-sophisticated crossover – string quartet plays the movies.

The opening track is from Pulp Fiction and there’s more from Ocean’s 12, Philadelphia and The Wizard of Oz. That’s where the record label gets ‘creative’. Why not use surprise soloists? Someone must have asked. So there’s fado singer Luz Casal doing ‘Amado Mio’, Stacey Kent in Corcovado and, sensationally, Natalie Dessay crooning ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’ with a good deal less camp than the late Judy G. Less arresting is the quartet’s cellist Raphael Merlin karaoking the vocals in ‘Streets of Philadelphia’… nice voice but no cigar.

The pièce de résistance is the whole quartet barber-shopping ‘Some day my prince will come’, by which time every listener will have got the point that these guys in frock-coats really want to play Vegas. The disc is one great dipper. Don’t listen to more than three tracks at a go or you’ll question your sanity.

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Three holy CDs for a visiting Pope

Ravish’d with Sacred Extasies
(Coro)
****

The soprano Elin Manahan Thomas has put together a fine bouquet of English devotions, starting with Purcell’s Morning Hymn and working on through the likes of Thomas Campion, Pelham Humfrey and the ever-lachrymose John Dowland, all products of the English Reformation. David Miller accompanies on lute and theorbo and simple faith shines through from start to finish.

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Dialogues of Sorrow
(Signum)
***

Prince Henry, sons and heir of King James 1, took a dip in the Thames in November 1612 and died of typhus. Bring on the composers. Robert Ramsey, Thomas Tomkins, Thomas Weelkes and others consoled their lord and master with biblical laments. Gallicantus sing the set beautifully under the direction of Gabriel Crouch.

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Messiaen: Visions of Amen
(Cedille)
(****)

Despite its devotional title this four-hand set, written in Paris under German occupation, is troubled and troubling. The composer, returned from a fairly civilised prisoner-of-war camp, was fretting over his wife’s health. He gave the premiere, in May 1943, with his star pupil Yvonne Loriod, later his second wife. Ursula Oppens and Jerome Lowenthal play with high tension and forebodings of doom.

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September 12, 2010

Kremerisms
(ECM/Nonesuch)
***/****

The restless violinist Gidon Kremer packs his records with more Baltic life than a jar of herrings, leaving the listener to pick out the best. In Hymns and Prayers on ECM, the Kremerata ensemble play a tribute to the film director Andrei Tarkovsky by Stevan Kovacs Tickmayer and a post-Soviet meditation by the Georgian exile, Giya Kancheli.

Tickmayer recounts his woes for eleven minutes without leaving a memorable phrase to savour. Kancheli grips the ear with a powerful cinematic opening and the tape of a child’s lament, only to repeat his effect several times over 25 minutes. In between, Kremer and friends give a decent account of the César Franck piano quintet. Why? Kremer thinks it unifies the two new works. Decide for yourself.

In De Profundis on Nonesuch, the Kremerata play works by 12 composers with a universal spiritual message. Some are stunning. Scene with Cranes by Sibelius – that’s birds, not construction machines – evokes nordic sun on silent water. Arvo Pärt contributes a trademark Passacaglia and the title piece, by Raminta Serksnyte, is gravely unsettling. Sogno di Stabat Mater by Lera Auerbach is another winner. But the rest is a mishmash of reworked Bach, along with Schubert, Schumann, Michael Nyman, Piazzola and Schnittke. Kremer dedicates the disc to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a mogul imprisoned for daring to defy Vladimir Putin’s gangster state.

All very well and worthy, but the album lacks focus. There are some wonderful elements, but better quality control could have produced total intensity. But then that’s Kremer: an addict of pick and mix.

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3 more Baltic specials

Korngold, Dvarionas: violin concertos
(Bis)
****

Vadim Gluzman, Riga trained and New York based, comes closer to David Oistrakh in tone and culture than any violinist I have heard this century. His account of the Korngold concerto is smiling and compassionate, challenging Matthew Trusler and Renaud Capucon for top recommendation. The companion pieces are by a Latvian-Lithuanian of great obscurity and expressive power. Balys Dvarionas (1904-72) owes much of his Pezzo Elegiaco to Tchaikovsky and his B-minor concerto to Sibelius. Oistrakh loved both works for their Baltic atmosphere, which Gluzman delivers with unshakeable conviction.

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Andrzej Panufnik: Polonia
(CPO)
****

Written from English exile in the 1950s, Panufnik’s tribute to his native land has an avowed Elgarian quality of sweet regret among jaunty folk dances. His 1948 Rustic Symphony is more poignant still, imbued with sounds of the northern shores and with emotions that could not be uttered under a Stalinist regime. Lukasz Borowicz draws immaculate performances from the Polish Radio orchestra.

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Arvo Pärt: 4th symphony
(ECM)
(***)

Premiered in Los Angeles last year and repeated at the BBC Proms, Pärt’s fourth symphony is typically hypnotic if somewhat less tense than his third. The LA Philharmonic play raptly under Esa-Pekka Salonen; the filler is choral – fragments from Kanon pokajanen wondrously echoes by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir under Tonu Kaljuste. Boy, can those Balts sing!

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September 5, 2010

Beethoven: 9th symphony
(Music & Arts)
***

The last two recordings of Beethoven’s ninth almost cost me the will to live. Both were on period instruments and both perverse to a fault. Many faults. Philippe Herrweghe’s on Pentatone was a plodathon. Emmanuel Krivine’s on Naïve sounded as if the gut was being taken from live cats. Forget I mentioned them.

It took a remastered live concert from November 1947 in the Royal Albert Hall to restore my faith in the work’s vitality. Bruno Walter conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra and chorus with an opening of unparalleled urgency, compulsively tense yet different from Toscanini in both the colour of tone and the shaping of phrase. Walter conceives the work as pure drama. If the Pastoral Symphony is nature raw and wet, the Ninth is society in turmoil, rich versus poor, right versus wrong. How it will end is anyone’s guess.

The orchestra is no great shakes, with a horn that misses entries by half a beat and lower strings that are not always together. But such is the power of Walter’s idea that one is drawn more to the syntax of sound than its objective quality. There is very little vibrato, less than in the period performances mentioned above, and the relation of one orchestral section to another seems to define the work’s social struggle.

The baritone, William Parsons, appears to be still at war with the German language but he and the other soloists – Isobel Baillie, Kathleen Ferrier and Heddle Nash – are finely balanced, none attempting to predominate. Notch by notch the tension rises, yielding at the close an irresistible catharsis. Despite the wonders worked by Andrew Rose and Aaron Z. Snyder on a mono, off-air recording, the sound is not always easy on the ear. Small caveats aside, though, this is a performance that demands to be heard.

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Three chamber music CDs

Casals Quartet: Metamorphosis
(Harmonia Mundi)
****

The young Spanish quartet play three Hungarian masters with phenomenal flair, working from Bartók’s fourth quartet to Ligeti’s first (long suppressed by him for its Bartók similarities) and ending with Kurtag’s aphoristic Microludes. The sound could be a little warmer, but the playing dazzles throughout.

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Two roads to exile
(RCA)
***

Adolf Busch left Germany in protest against Hitler’s race laws, Walter Brunfels stayed put. Busch’s string sextet and Braunfels’s quintet are amiable curiosities, written to please the long-dead Brahms. The Toronto group, Arc, found the works on a library shelf and play them with proselytising zest.

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Schoenberg: 3rd and 4th quartets
(Naxos)
(****)

Ever heard Leila Josefowicz play 12-tone? You have to search the small print to find her, but she leads the fourth string quartet in a Robert Craft-supervised performance, close to the edge and very beautiful. Jennifer Frautschi leads the 3rd quartet and there’s a rare reading of the 1949 Phantasy by Rolf Schulte and Christopher Oldfather. Strong stuff.

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August 29, 2010

Korngold: string quartets
(Chandos)
****

Erich Wolfgang Korngold was born old and burdened with intolerable expectations. His father, a Viennese newspaper critic, middled him with Mozart’s name and groomed him as a child prodigy. His first ballet was commissioned by Gustav Mahler. Between the two wars Korngold had the biggest operatic hit of the age, Die Tote Stadt. Yet, for all his gifts, Korngold never sounded entirely himself. There was always something nostalgic and referential about his music.

The first quartet, dated 1923, starts with an acerbic nod to Schoenberg and Zemlinsky before settling into a crowd-pleaser. The second, ten years later, hints at Hitler’s terror without getting to grips with the threat; there are just morbid hints of Ravel’s La Valse. The third was written in 1944 in Hollywood where Korngold was a rich and successful film composer, yearning for his lost concert prestige. The opening belongs to Schoenberg’s sound world, before veering off into pleasantries.

The fascination in all three works is the composer’s unresolved identity confusion, allied to a real melodic genius. The Doric String Quartet, a young British group, play with seat-gripping bite and verve, deftly avoiding the nostalgia trap.

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Three compilation CDs to try (or, in one case, not):

Steven Isserlis: ReVisions
(Bis)
****

Cellists complain they don’t have enough concert works to play. This one has done something about it. First, Isserlis plays a lost suite by Debussy restored by composer Sally Beamish, a dreamy ramble from the pre-impressionist 1880s. A 1952 Prokofiev solo piece, completed by Mstislav Rostropovich, fizzes up nicely for full orchestra. Both pieces deserve a big concert setting – perhaps the BBC Proms? The other works are orchestral flesh-outs of Ravel’s Hebrew Melodies and Bloch’s suite From Jewish Life, played with deep emotion and on a deeper-toned Strad than Isserlis’s usual instrument. The Tapiola Sinfonietta is conducted by Gabor Takacs-Nagy. Never a dull moment – and of how many cello wallows can you say that?

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Martin Fröst: Fröst & Friends
(Bis)
***

The hot Swedish clarinettist plays an effervescent pot-pourri with Roland Pöntinen on piano, and other pals. Not all of it works: Bach on clarinet feels like an ear full of wax and there’s a lack of idiom in a klezmer tune. But Fröst’s virtuosity in the Flight of the Bumblebee will blow you away and Rachmaninov’s Vocalise has never felt smoother. Not to be taken as single sitting, but small doses will delight.

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12 Cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic: Fleur de Paris
(EMI)
(no stars)

Why would a world-class orchestral section play such trivia as ‘Sous les ponts de Paris’ and ‘La vie en rose’ on a programme called NDR Kultur? Don’t ask me. The fripperies are leaded with heavy German humour – tantalising intros and dead-beat hints – and the read-out cues are in Japanese. I’d rather hear Boulez on a penny-whistle.

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August 22, 2010

Beethoven: complete piano concertos
(Harmonia Mundi)
****

Where does one start the Beethoven concertos. I go looking for the silence at the start of the G-major, one of the most intense, rapt entries in the whole of western music. The pianist sets the tone, daring conductor and author to come in even softer. It’s an idyllic moment, the idea that we can win argument by quiet reason rather than the usual bluster of human conversation.

The British pianist Paul Lewis, in this profound and likeable new cycle, comes in a little noisier than one might like, more assertive than Artur Schnabel and Emil Gilels in two landmark recordings. But Jiri Belohlavek and the BBC Symphony Orchestra meet him on level terms and the discourse proceeds with close engagement. A few minutes in, you recall a mirror-image passage in the Largo of the third concerto and every decision in the series suddenly becomes part of a greater integrity, conceived as a whole.

There is much else to be discovered in this summery and seemingly effortless rehearsal for the BBC Proms cycle. Paul Lewis is often bracketed with his mentor, Alfred Brendel, but I find few similarities. There is less anguish, fewer pearly non-sequiturs. Lewis lets off sparklers in the first two concertos; the next two are studiously analytical without being solemn; only in the Emperor concerto does one wish the voltage were higher. But these are small cavils in a challenging set that defines the state of Beethoven playing in the second decade of the 21st century.

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3 Czech-out CDs

Dvorak: quartets 9 & 14
(Nimbus Alliance)
*****

The Wihan Quartet’s emerging set of the Dvorak cycle is the most compelling in years, amounting to an intimate biography of the composer. The 9th string quartet of 1877 laments the death of his first three children; the 14th marks his joyous homecoming from America in 1895. Alert to every flicker of mood, the Wihans maintain a line of beauty through playing of tremendous vigour. You couldn’t wish to hear a more vivid, truthful, idiomatic account of these works.

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In the Mists
(Champs Hill)
***

Debutante Ivana Gavric, Sarajevo born and Cambridge educated, has a rare intuition for the autumnal regrets of Janacek’s In the Mists. She is devoting the next year to Janacek studies in Banff, Canada, The rest of her recital disc of Schubert, Liszt and Rachmaninov is, comparatively, less arresting.

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Martinu: 3 cello sonatas and variations
(Chandos)
**

Besotted as I am with Martinu, I wasn’t over-excited by Paul and Huw Watkins in the cello-piano works. The playing is a little clean, lacking the deep-down surprises that the composer likes to spring. The best track on disc, worth the full purchase price, is a deathbed set of variations on a Slovak theme, full on longing for lost vistas.

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August 16, 2010

Solomon
(EMI)
*****

This record can damage your health. The cover shows a man lighting a cigarette with a bullet-case steel lighter. The man’s name is Solomon Cutner. Not long after this picture was taken, he suffered a stroke and lost the use of his right arm. One of the most distinctive pianists of his day, he never played again. He was a persistent smoker. The cover constitutes a severe health warning. The contents demonstrate the cost of the great loss of an unique talent.

These Berlin radio sessions were recorded in February 1956. Since Solomon made relatively few big-label records – some Beethoven concertos and sonatas, some Chopin, and the most explosive Grieg concerto you will ever hear – my excitement level was high before the playing started. It soon shot through the roof.

The early Beethoven sonata op 2/3 is skittish, mischievous, take-that kind of playing, suggesting that this artist is not bothered either by fashion or by any kind of academic correctness. The Moonlight Sonata is ominously anti-romantic, the opening bars telling you that someone’s going to get hurt before the night is out, while Schumann’s Carnaval is positively demonic from the opening bars, a steepling descent into madness. No pianist alive today attacks those morsels with such wanton fury, unafraid of showing the dark side of the moon.

Bach’s Italian Concerto sounds so old-fashioned in Solomon’s hands it is almost archaeological, and there is a muscularity to three Chopin pieces that blows aside the composer’s supposed frailty. In two Brahms intermezzi and a rhapsody, Solomon’s instinct is unassailable and the beauty is heart-stopping. He was just reaching his prime when the smoking took its toll. He died, near forgotten, in 1988.

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Three Schumanns to try:

Symphonies 1 & 2
(Sony Classical)
***

The four symphonies are a hard sell, the first two hardest of all. Many conductors shared Gustav Mahler’s view that Schumann’s orchestrations need improvement; many listeners are unconvinced by the bright finales that follow desperate scherzos.

The most refreshing aspect of these performances by Sakari Oramo and the Royal Stockholm Phiharmonic is their avoidance of analysis. This is a straightforward, literal interpretation and much the better for its objectivity. The orchestra is short of world class, but its winds have character and their morose solos have vivid credibility.

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Violin sonatas 1-3
(Onyx)
***

Ilya Gringolts and pianist Peter Laul take a sunny approach to the sonatas, a welcome change from the usual gloom and doom. The first two are mid-romantic meditations, the third a posthumous reconstruction. Gringolts is velvety and seductive in the softer passages, avoiding the pursuit of speed and showmanship, a natural storyteller.

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Complete works for cello and piano
(Preiser)
***

Against heavyweight competition – Maisky-Argerich, Isserlis-Varjon, Vogler-Canino – the Austrian duo Clemens Hagen and Stefan Vladar give a pleasing, low-key account of the Adagio and Allegro, the Fantasy Pieces and other tidbits. This is not so much chamber music as domestic harmony, a fireside sharing of insubstantial pleasures.

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August 8, 2010

Brodsky Quartet: Rhythm and Texture
(Orchid Classics)
****

It’s so good to have the Brodskys back on record. In a field full of fine quartets, the Glasgow-based group have always had an edge. Whether it was playing with Sting and Björk before anyone imagined pop musicians might hanker for classical fibre, or whether it was getting in a stylist to shape their stage performance, the Brodskys were way ahead of the game and usually on top of it.

After 38 years on the road they sound fresh as ever, opening the Ravel quartet here with a gossamer whisper that builds to a furious assault in the finale. A 1919 lullaby by Gershwin, who studied with Ravel, is the followup piece and it provides a perfect bridge from then to now, the last three pieces belonging to the group’s own life span.

Mario Lavista’s Reflejos de la Noche (1984) does what it says in the title, overlaying Bartok-like nocturnal rustlings on a minimalist backdrop. Javier Alvarez’s Metro Chabacano (1991) could be mistaken for middle-period John Adams, while Osvaldo Golijov’s Tenebrae (2003) offers his trademark fusion of faiths and cultures.

Not all of this is consistently compelling but together, the works project an aesthetic that is pure Brodsky. They are played with elegant restraint, contemporary without forcing the point, and fervent to an extent that all you want to do when the disc ends is play it again.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical


 

Three CD sets to try

Jordi Savall: El Nuevo Mundo
(Alia Vox)
****

Some music magazines come with a free cover CD; Savall furnishes his CDs with a free book, explaining the heritage that he performs with his Hesperion XX ensemble and his wife, Montserrat Figueras. In this project he explores the music of the conquistadores of Central America, and the slavemasters that followed. Andalusian by origin, the short pieces are inflected by mystic African rhythms and, perhaps, by some wispy Caribbean spirit. At times, in El Cielito Lundo (1796) for instance, one clearly hears the beginnings of American pop rhythms. This, for me, is one of the most revealing of Savall’s many expeditions. There is only one CD, but the package is thick enough for six.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com





Handel: Concerti Grossi, opus 6
(Linn Records)
***

Three hours at a stretch is an awful lot of early Handel, and the Newcastle-based Avison Ensemble, attentively as the play under Pavel Beznosiuk’s leadership, cannot quite convince me that every track is made of unadulterated genius. But every now and then - in the allegro of opus 6/6, for instance – Handel springs fully formed off the playing surface and grips the ear with a rugged fist. Like a good malt whiskey, this is music to be taken in slow sips at the end of a hard day.

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Haydn: London Symphonies
(Naïve)
****

There have been many excellent recordings of Haydn’s British dozen, but relatively few on period instruments. Marc Minkowski goes for exhilarating Vivaces and nothing too sepulchral in the Adagios. The Surprise Symphony is, for once, full of shocks (do not listen while driving) and the Miracle Symphony has a touch of the numinous. There is a delicious French effervescence to the Grenoble-based Musiciens du Louvre, making it easy to forget that these symphonies were written by a German-speaker in England. Tremendously enjoyable, though not what I’d call authentic.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com






August 1, 2010

Trio Tzane: Gaitani
(Naïve)
*****

In the 21st century melting pot that is Nicolas Sarkozy’s Paris, three young women come together to sing and exchange ancestral traditions. Xanthalou Dakovanou is Greek, with Tashkent connections, a medical doctor and homeopath. Gül Hacer Toruk is Turkish, raised in France with eastward yearnings. Sandrine Monzelun is a French ethnomusicologist, expert in Bulgarian chant.

Singly and severally, they flutter traditional songs from the Mediterranean basin and its outflung margins – mother’s laments, lullabies, feast songs, dirges and meditations of three faiths, accompanied by a varied ensemble of ethnic instruments.

And then the fun begins. Once the melody is established, the two other women join in with harmonies and improvisations from ulterior cultures. The rainbow effect is rapturous and irresistible - a true reflection of our modern world, far removed from synthetic crossover. Sample any track and you will find an art that is true to its origins yet open to dialogue. This is fusion at its finest, a sun-blessed tour d'horizons of the ingredients of western music.

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3 concerto CDs

Mozart: piano concertos 20 and 27
(EMI)
***

Past the faltering opening of the first concerto, this CD has passages of serene transcendence. I have seldom heard Evgeny Kissin play Mozart with a sunnier touch and less obvious torment. So relaxed is the atmosphere, it could almost be a private session. The K595 concerto opens with similar, ragged hesitation. The orchestra, the Kremerata Baltica, recovers quickly but never with memorable beauty or conviction. You get the impression that Kissin needs a conductor, and an ensemble of greater character.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com





Haydn: cello concertos
(Avie)
***

The Brazilian cellist Antonio Meneses directs the Northern Sinfonia in two lovely performances, marred by transient imperfections in the British band. These are works of great elegance and intensity, too intricate to be led successfully by the soloist (only Mischa Maisky has done it well on disc). This is another project that required a conductor. The bonus, however, is a marvel - a fusion concerto by the Brazilian composer Clovis Pereira that melds Arab, Latin and classical themes in a bouillabaisse that quickens all the tastebuds and leaves us, like Oliver, clamouring for more.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical





Beethoven: Emperor concerto
(ArcoDiva)
***

The Czech pianist Michal Masek brings a Bach-like clarity to the old warhorse, tamping down dynamic levels and relishing his interplay with the chamber orchestra of Pardubice, conducted by Leos Svarovsky. Many soloists think they can lead a chamber ensemble; Masek does well to follow the baton and the results are consistently refreshing, on a label that deserves wider distribution. The filler is a gorgeously contemplative account of the 24th piano sonata, op 78, written in the same year, 1809, as the Emperor.

>Buy this CD at MusicWeb International






July 25, 2010

Chopin: The Mazurka Diary
(Berlin Classics)
****

After hearing Maria Joao Pires stun the Royal Albert Hall with Nocturnes in a late night BBC Prom last week, I was prepared to believe that there was no surer route to the heart of Chopin. But great art admits many varieties and some of the current crop of bicentennial recordings are illuminating and creative.

Anna Gourari, Russian born and German resident, traces Chopin’s struggle with that rustic folk-dance, the mazurka. Neither stately polka nor drawing-room waltz, the mazurka finds Chopin both at his most tormented and at his deepest tranquillity. Starting in 1824 when he was just 14, he wrote mazurkas compulsively to the very end of his life – the opus 68/4 is his last known deathbed work.

Gourari’s approach is reflective, revealing, often breathtakingly poetic. In the popular A-minor mazurka, op 17/4, she almost stops the clock with slow daring; in the C#-minor, op 50/3, she flutters on the brink of abandon; and in the op 68/4 valediction she abjures sentimentality for a return to youthful dreams. This is a riveting tour d’horizons by a truly original artist.

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3 more Chopin CDs

Chopin: Nocturnes
(Decca)
****

Authority is the first sound we hear from the late-flowering Brazilian pianist, a feeling of absolute security in every tempo taken, every phrase turned. His passion for Chopin is expressed in the little things – the momentary hesitations, the gentle gloss over a timeworn run. Unusually, he sounds more emotional in major-key pieces than in minor (try op 15/1 for example), but Freiere’s way with Chopin is always personal and, often as not, unforgettable.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com





Chopin: Nocturnes
(EMI)
**

Yundi Li plays at an opposite extreme. A brash winner of the Chopin Competition with a topsy-turvy career, the Chinese pianist flourishes an ear-catching flamboyance that, initially exuberant, palls over the long run with a lack of intellectual conviction. That said, the phrasing can be exquisite, never more so than in the E-flat, op 9/2.

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Chopin
(Ambroisie)
***

The fashion for playing Chopin on the woody pianos of his period shows no sign of abating. Edna Stern, on an 1842 Pleyel, sounds underpowered in the great B-flat minor sonata, but her command is impressive and the funeral march sounds much the darker for being played on a more primitive mechanism. More interesting still are the etudes and waltzes that fill this intense disc.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical






July 18, 2010

Wagner: Lieder, preludes and overtures
(Deutsche Grammophon)
****

Franz Welser-Möst takes over next month at the Vienna Opera, a new-broom music director at an institution living off its distant past. This live recording with the Cleveland Orchestra is a token of what Vienna can expect: crisp, clean notes and a dynamic balance micromanaged for maximum emotional effect.

The ebb and flow of the Tristan prelude and postlude has seldom been so attentively gauged, yet a solo oboe has all the freedom it needs under this baton to bend a line. The Meistersingers overture is more jolly romp than solemn ceremonial and the Ride of the Valkyries is a better ear-cleanser than any you can buy at a cornerstore. In between, Measha Brueggergosman delivers the adulterous Wesendonck songs with a seductive smooch that will have you shifting in your seat and checking your pre-nup contracts. The orchestra is at its shining best and the production, by Elaine Marton, Robert Woods and Michael Bishop, marks a return to the highest US sound standards.

It has taken time, but the Austrian conductor is now established as one of the lynchpins of US orchestral life. How he balances that summit position with the political turbulence of Vienna will be one of the headline makers of the coming years.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical


 

Three CDs from the same venue

Bach: 6 partitas
(Decca)
****

Such a joy to hear Vladimir Ashkenazy back at his Bach after announcing his retirement from the piano. The playing is light, fleet and structurally secure, with plenty of fantasy. There is also an air of nostalgia, since playing Bach on a concert grand is a thing of the past and no-one else today performs it with such blithe disdain for political correctness as Ashkenazy in this mood. Best of all, the sound in Potton Hall – a difficult venue in a beautiful Suffolk field - is superbly balanced, a masterclass in studio craft by Andrew Cornall, Jeremy Hayes, Philip Siney and Tony Faulkner. Why settle for less the A team?

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com





Brahms: complete violin sonatas
(Sony)
***

Jack Liebeck is one of the most engaging young violinists in Britain and Katya Apekisheva is a Leeds prizewinner. So why does their Brahms sound undercooked? The recording was made in December 2007 in Potton Hall, some two years before Jack signed a record deal; it may have been rushed out to mark Sony’s return to classical fray. The volume is low, the range constricted and the instruments shady and recessed. The piano sounds as if the tuner should have stayed an extra hour. The playing is faultless but lacking in the large gestures that Brahms requires if we are to believe in his present-day relevance. Much to enjoy here, but more to rue.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical





Dvorak: string quartets 11 and 12
(Nimbus)
****

There are so many outstanding Czech string quartets on the circuit at present that the terrific Wihans struggle for their share of limelight. Recorded by Jeremy Hayes and Eric James at Potton Hall in December 2004, they give compelling readings of two post-American Dvorak quartets in a delicately balanced acoustic. The 12th is the string quartet equivalent of From the New World, but it is the 11th that shows more of the idead that Dvorak acquired during his stint in the mid-West. A lovely record.

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July 12, 2010

Recomposed by Matthew Herbert: Mahler Symphony X
(Deutsche Grammophon)
***

Believe nothing on this record cover, except the photograph (which, as it happens, was taken by me). It shows the wooden hut in Toblach where Mahler wrote his three last symphonies, most painfully the tenth in which he confronted the likelihood of losing not just life but his greatest love – his wife, who was having a flagrant affair with the architect Walter Gropius. His anguish streamed into the score, both as musical notes and as fevered inscriptions to the fickle Alma – ‘to live for you, to die for you!… Almschi!!!’ The tenth symphony is Mahler in extremis.

Many attempts have been made to complete this near-finished work and Matthew Herbert’s is not one of them. He does not recompose Mahler. What this self-styled ‘sampling wizard’ does is to take an existing recording of the tenth symphony’s long Adagio, by the Philharmonia Orchestra and Giuseppe Sinopoli, and subject it to electronic manipulation. The first sounds you hear are footsteps echoing around Mahler’s composing hut. Into and around the music flutter fragments of bells, birdsong and country grunts. The music gets bent electronically into grotesque psychedelic shapes. Distortive peeps and howls intrude from behind a studio wall. What you hear is both Mahler and unMahler.

Many will hate this record. I find it essential Mahler, in the sense that it captures his essence. Mahler was the first to embrace ambient sounds in his symphonies, the first to acknowledge that what we hear in a concert is not just music but wisps of passing traffic, heavy breathing, air-conditioning. Matthew Herbert is the first to express this truth on record - a commendable, if uncomfortable, achievement.

* Norman Lebrecht’s Why Mahler is published by Faber and Faber in the UK (£17.95). The US edition will appear from Pantheon on 5 October.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical


 

Sarah Nemtanu: Gypsic
(Naïve)
****

So who’s the new Django Reinhardt, then? Half French, half-Rumanian, Nemtanu mixes authentic Csardas dances with Ravel’s idealised Tzigane, a sonata by Georges Enescu with a gypsy fantasy by Sarasate. Unafraid of the harsh edge of her strings, she plays with rich intensity and a troubled personality. The accompaniments, too, are constantly intriguing.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical





Pierné, Gade, Prokofiev: flute sonatas
(NDR Genuin)
****

Flute and piano are not my favourite tipple, but Hans-Udo Heinzmann and Irish-based Elisaveta Blumina makes a compelling case for these three – the French opener as floaty as a summer dress, the Norwegian dunked in Brahms and the Prokofiev second sonata suppressing wartime anxieties (and better known in its violin-piano form). The soloists here play as equals, and the playfulness itself is delightful.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical





Tom Kerstens’ G+ Ensemble: Utopia
(Realworld)
**

New works for two guitars and string quartet are not everyday fare, but there are few risks taken in these commissions by UK composers Joby Talbot and John Metcalfe. Talbot provides dinner-table background, Metcalfe a more disjointed conversation, all harmonically humdrum. One feels an absence of risk.

>Buy this CD at Womadshop






July 5, 2010

Two great big Mahler boxes

150th Anniversary Box - Mahler Complete Works
(EMI)
*****

Gustav Mahler: Complete Edition
(DG)
****/*

The founders of the record industry, EMI and Deutsche Grammophon, have each issued a bumper box of what they claim to be the definitive Mahler performances. EMI does it on 16 discs, DG on 18. Both contain accounts of arresting importance. Making the case for one against the other is an absolute head-banger of a choice.

Neither, of course, is definitive. No Mahlerian could get by without the 1960s Leonard Bernsteins on CBS (Sony), the 1938 Bruno Walter Mahler 9th (EMI), the Kathleen Ferrier/Julius Patzak Das Lied von der Erde (Decca), the Mengelberg Mahler 4th (Philips) and many more that I discuss in my new book, Why Mahler?

But from each group’s archives, the selection has been astute and, often, exceptionally sensitive. EMI’s driving-seat conductors are John Barbirolli, Klaus Tennstedt and Simon Rattle, not always the most reassuring chauffeurs. But the first symphony is a shimmering Chicago concert by Carlo-Maria Giulini, the second Otto Klemperer’s monumental vision, the fourth a compellingly eccentric take by Jascha Horenstein and Das Lied the indispensable Klemperer duo of Christa Ludwig and Fritz Wunderlich.

Of the remainder, Tennstedt’s Royal Festival Hall concert of the fifth is electrifying and his eighth, from 1986, is unrivalled on record. Barbirolli’s ninth has near-historic status, the first time it was played in half a century by the Berlin Phil. Perhaps the only major error of judgement was to prefer Rattle’s Berlin tenth to his younger, more revealing performance with the Bournemouth orchestra.

DG, which issued Rafael Kubelik’s set at the same time as CBS produced Bernstein’s, opens with his alluring, rustic account of the first symphony and follows with Mehta, Haitink, Boulez and Bernstein (from his later, 1980s cycle). You can the diplomatic games being played: every DG maestro must have his say.

Abbado, whose third is a byword for bucolic beauty, is represented by a so-so sixth, Sinopoli is included unconvincingly for the seventh, Solti does a heavens-busting eighth, Karajan a supersmooth ninth and Riccardo Chailly the most absorbing tenth symphony on record. Das Lied is Giulini’s pairing of Brigitte Fassbender and Franco Araiza has been for some years my personal favourite.

There’s less to separate these boxes than there once was between England and Germany at soccer. EMI has Wilhelm Furtwängler directing Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the Wandering Aprentice songs (beat that!), while Deutsche Grammophon counter with Thomas Hampson and Bernstein in the same cycle – this could go to penalties.

Both boxes provide fascinating fragments – the student-era piano quartet movement and the discarded Blumine section of the first symphony. DG also has an instrumental passage from the Weber opera, Die Drei Pintos, that Mahler brought to fruition. One stroke of ingenuity shades the match for EMI. As a filler on the final disc you can hear six very different singers in Mahler’s trademark song, Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen – Janet Baker, Ludwig, Fischer-Dieskau, Fassbender, Thomas Allen and Katarina Karneus – a cornucopia of sensitive singing, a winner in extra time.












>Buy 150th Anniversary Box - Mahler Complete Works at Amazon













>Buy Gustav Mahler: Complete Edition at Amazon






June 27, 2010

Beethoven: string quartets op 18/6, op 130, op 135
(Virgin)
****

There are string quartets, and there is the Artemis. Four discs into their Beethoven cycle, the Russian-German ensemble has pulled clear of all competition to make a statement as emphatic as the Amadeus did half a century ago.

The playing – fleet, light, indisputably auspicious – is high-risk yet flawless and full of character. From the opening of the sixth quartet (1801), the players make it clear that they have formed a coherent overview of the whole cycle. The opus 18s are still embedded in the courtly mannerisms of Haydn and Mozart; in this interpretation the driving voice is the young Beethoven’s, rugged and revolutionary, though without a clearly defined manifesto.

In the late quartets, the moods turns frantic in presto passages, reflecting the composer’s awareness that his time is running out. There is a breathlessness to this music. The Artemis can sound too muscular and prescriptive, like athletes at an Olympic qualifier; they leave little room for diversionary thoughts or fleeting mischief. But they are never unmusical, nor does their slower tread ever turn sombre and portentous. In the Grosse Fuge, opus 135, their tenderness could melt stone. This is both an epic and an epochal set, a rereading of Beethoven through present-day perspectives. It is required listening.

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Four contemporary CDs

Eric Whitacre: Choral music
(Naxos)
**

Whitacre, 40, is among the most performed American composers of the moment. You can hear why from this sing-easy disc of simple harmonies for amateur choirs, rooted in the Anglican tradition. Blindfold, he could be mistaken for John Rutter. Before long, my ear is begging for a challenging interval, or a tempo change. Noel Edison conducts the Elora Festival Singers. Perhaps I should try Whitacre’s instrumental and electronic output.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com





John Corigliano: violin concerto ‘The Red Violin’
(Naxos)
****

Film scores do not on the whole make good concert pieces, even when music is the subject of the movie. I have heard this concerto played on record by Joshua Bell, Chloe Hanslip and I Musici of Montreal without being gripped. Michael Ludwig, though, brings something extra to this performance. For a start, there is nothing slushy or movie-sentimental about his playing, which is hot, sharp and close to the edge. These qualities drive the narrative in a way that lets you forget it was once yoked to a dumb story. The Buffalo Philharmonic play like major-leaguers and JoAnn Falletta keeps it tight. The filler is a suite from Corigiliano’s Met opera, The Ghosts of Versailles.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com





Luc Brewaeys: Painted Pyramids
(Etcetera)
***

This Belgian composer is a bit of an ear-gripper, with a cool way of floating sound fragments past the ear to make you sit up and listen. Painted Pyramids for piano, five players and live electronics (2008) is a signature work. If you like that, delve deeper into assorted instrumental works, among which a grumpy accordion solo appeals enormously to my sense of mischief.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical





Georg Friedrich Haas: works for ensemble
(Neon)
*

The Austrian Haas writes similar spectral music to Brewaeys, but with less to say. The floating fragments are very proficiently done and some of the sounds are pleasant, but an hour in his company is a very long time.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical






June 21, 2010

Schumann: Complete works for violin and orchestra
(Hänssler)
***

His last work for solo instrument and orchestra, written in September 1853 when he was close to mental collapse, Schumann’s violin concerto is much less played than his masterpieces for piano and cello. Which is not to say that it is less affecting. There are passages in the opening movement that prefigure the monument that Brahms wrote for the same soloist, Joseph Joachim, and there is an anguish in the slow middle section that is all the more overwhelming for its fatalistic helplessness.

Big-sound soloists often get it wrong by over-projecting the emotional content. Lena Neudauer, a young prizewinner from Munich, pitches it just right on her Guadagnini, allowing the listener to find fantasy and fear in the troubled work. There is always more to Schumann than meets the ear and this concerto ought to be getting a bigger play in the composer’s bicentennial year.

Neudauer has less to say in the Phantasie for violin and orchestra and lacks credence in the rip-off violin version of the magniloquent cello concerto, indecently removed from an instrument that has too few showpieces of its own. Pablo Gonzalez conducts the Saarbrücken radio orchestra.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical


 

Three more Schumann CDs

Cello concerto, arranged for violin
(Onyx)
***

Philippe Graffin conjures a huge sound from a 1730 Domenico Busano violin, made in Venice, almost big enough to suggest the cello for which this score was intended. Almost, but not quite. Just as you are getting seduced by Graffin’s conviction, a smoky reminiscence of real cello sound reduces his effort to ersatz imitation. The redeeming fillers are the lively D minor violin sonata, op 121, and three romances of Clara Schumann for violin and piano, tautly accompanied by Claire Désert.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical





Cello concerto
(Berlin Classics)
****

The soloist, joining a recorded line that extends dauntingly back to Casals, is the enterprising Jan Vogler and the Munich orchestra is chamber-sized. The reading is agreeably conversational, avoiding the big watch-me gestures and content to be first among equals. The fillers are cello-violin pieces, partnered by Bruno Canino in a meditative empathy and outstanding sound. I shall replay this often.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical





The Circle of Robert Schumann
(Capriccio)
**

The other composers are Clara, Joseph Joachim and Woldemar Baregiel, and the players are Gudrun Schaumann on a 1731 Stradivari and Christoph Hammer on an 1836 fortepiano. Both instruments are scratchy and the lesser lights in Schumann’s salon lack the same voltage of inspiration in their scores. This must have looked like a good idea on paper.

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June 14, 2010

Ysaye: 6 solo sonatas
(Warner)
****

The only fault I can find with this disc is that it makes the impossible sound easy. The six sonatas for solo violin by the Belgian virtuoso Eugène Ysaye (1858-1931) were intended to separate the big beasts of the instrument from lesser contenders, dedicated as they are to Ysaye’s close rivals Kreisler, Enescu, Thibaud and Szigeti, along with the lesser-known Mathieu Crickboom and Manuel Quiroga.

Rachel Kolly D’Alba, a Swiss debutante, steps up to this gold plate without fear. Her finger speed in the opening sonata takes the breath away and before you get over that shock, she plays merry havoc with the Russian requiem theme in the second. The athleticism is not just for show. It demonstrates a new approach to the set, a contemporary reinterpretation that sets past masters in respectful context and gives the music a slightly wacky reinvigoration. The fourth sonata, where she finds quietude, is both calming and laconic. You never know what she’s going to do next.

I have heard the sonatas played on record by Kremer, Mordkovitch, Zimmermann, Shumsky, Schmid and Kavakos. With the exceptions of Ilya Kaler and Thomas Zehetmair, this set has no serious competition and, in sheer bravura, none at all. The Warner label, long defunct in classical output, has relaunched itself with a winner.

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Three contemporary CDs

Detlev Glanert: Caligula
(Oehms)
***

Glanert emerged in my recent survey (http://www.artsjournal.com/slippeddisc) as the most performed German composer of the 21st century. His gloomy Roman opera, conducted in Frankfurt by Markus Stenz, does classical perversions in post-Wozzeck tones. Ashley Holland and Michaela Shuster top the bill; you probably need to see this on stage to get full impact, but the music is very strong stuff indeed.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com





Pascal Dusapin: seven solos for orchestra
(Naïve)
***

Not to be heard at a single sitting, these are fabulous miniatures for large orchestra – if such a thing is possible – a set of short stories spread across two discs. I’m not advocating plagiarism, but any film composer with a John Williams complex would get a new lease of life from listening to this tone master at work. Pascal Rophé conducts a surprisingly agile Belgian band.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com





Contemporary Music from Ireland, vol 9
(CMC)
***

Having raved about the vitality of volume 8, I am almost as excited by the latest batch of Irish sounds – especially a chatty string quartet by Ronan Guilfoyle, a Chopinesque commentary by John McLachlan and some weird and woody sounds from Judith Ring. There is real invention on show in the Dublin studios.

>Buy this CD at the CMC






May 30, 2010

Casella: 2nd symphony in C minor; Scarlattiana
(Chandos)
****

Alfredo Casella was one of Mahler’s closest acolytes before he became a mouthpiece for Mussolini’s cultural policies. What he learned from Mahler is audible here, in a symphony that was premiered in Paris in April 1910, a week after the French debut of Mahler’s 2nd symphony, also in C minor.

The opening clangour of harp, strings and bells has the stamp of Mahler’s Resurrection, as does the helter-skelter scamper of the second movement. In the Adagio the solemnity is more demonstrably Roman Catholic, with wisps of Mahler’s unheard Ninth. The finale has a fairground feel to it – nowhere near as threatening as Mahler’s apocalyptic visions, or as uplifting as his resurrection. The symphony ends with a six-minute Epilogue, reverting to the mood of Mahler’s fifth symphony Adagietto, tender and morbid at once, exerting an intense pull on the heartstrings. This is a symphony no Mahlerian can afford to ignore.

The second piece on disc is a set of variations for piano and orchestra on baroque themes by Domenico Scarlatti. Whimsical and occasionally amusing, it’s a pleasant summer’s night entertainment. Martin Roscoe is the speedy pianist; Gianandrea Noseda conducts the BBC Philharmonic, who are in tremendous form.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com


 

Three cello CDs

Britten: cello symphony and suite
(Onyx)
****

The balance of Britten’s opening is almost impossible to gauge accurately, whether in concert or on record. Onyx producer Matthew Cosgrove gets it dead right in this captivating performance by Peter Wispelwey and the Flanders orchestra, conductor Seikyo Kim. The conversation is just as Britten intended, with profundity, hesitancies and ultimate solitude. The cello suite is even more persuasive, unfailingly melodic and with none of the scratchy patches that marred its dedicatee, Slava Rostropovich.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical





Elgar: cello concerto &c
(Sony)
**

I had been looking forward to this performance by Sol Gabetta, but the mood is not quite right. Languid where she ought to be mournful and athletic in place of fear, the Argentine cellist has not quite got the idiom of this great piece; not does the Danish orchestra under Mario Venzago. Of the companion pieces, I was gripped by Petris Vasks’ seven-minute soliloquy for solo cello, titled The Book.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical





Kodaly: Sonata
(Hyperion)
****

Natalie Clein, who made a fine recording of the Elgar concerto, finds a private space in Zoltan Kodaly’s great First World War sonata, a place for introspection and self-renewal. The melodies may tend to the morose, but the concluding Allegro dances away the gloom on the flat Hungarian plains. In the 1922 Sonatina and the late Epigrams, Julius Drake adds empathy from the piano.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical






May 25, 2010

Gisela May: Brecht Songs
(Berlin Classics)
****

As far as most listeners are concerned, performing style in Kurt Weill runs in a direct line from Lotte Lenya, the composer’s widow, through Teresa Stratas to Ute Lemper. There is, however, an alternative tradition. It developed in East Berlin and is exemplified by the extraordinary Mother Courage actress, Gisela May.

Smoky-voiced and more pitch-true than Lenya, May was diverted into cabaret in 1957 by Hanns Eisler who trained her in what he considered to be the best way of rendering the Bertolt Brecht songbook, much of it attacking the power of the totalitarian state. In May’s performance, the songs by Weill and other composers are more personal than political. But instead of muffling the message by downplaying the ideological bark, May actively accentuates the protest by centring on a mother whose son is marched off to war.

May is closest to Lenya in Surabaya-Jonny, farthest in Eisler’s Song of the Wife and the German Soldier. Where Lenya is always a weary woman of the world, May lets you know that she lives in a prison state and is forced to imagine whatever life there is beyond. In Evelyn Roe’s Legend, by Hans Dieter Hosalla, she borrows mannerisms from Pete Seeger and Joan Baez. In Mother Courage’s Song, by Paul Dessau, she is vocally indomitable. At 85, Gisela May continues to give cabaret performances with the Berliner Ensemble, a last living witness of two awful epochs. She demands to be heard.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical


 

Three important Mahler CDs

Mahler and his piano
(Preiser)
*****

This is the third CD release of four piano rolls that Mahler made in November 1905 at the Welte studios in Leipzig, but the first to record them on Mahler’s own piano. The distinction is substantial. Leaner than a modern concert grand, the Blüthner that Mahler played at home (now at the Wien Museum) tamps off surplus reverberation and exposes every smudged note. Mahler makes no show of virtuosity. What we hear in two symphonic movements and two songs is his impetuous haste to share musical revelation, replete with mechanical noise of the Welte-Mignon player. This must have been exactly what he heard when the piano rolls were played at home, making this disc indispensable for any Mahler seeker.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical





Mahler: 6th symphony
(ArcoDiva)
****

Recorded in Mahler’s birthland, this concert by the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra of Olomouc, conductor Petr Vronsky, takes a sunnier view than most of the ominous sixth symphony. Crisis, what crisis? it seems to be saying. Yet this is a valid reading of a work written at the peak of Mahler’s domestic happiness and the atmosphere feels appropriately organic, giving the cowbells in the finale a perfect setting. The sound, on a small Prague label, is superb.

>Buy this CD at MDT





Mahler: 2nd symphony
(Virgin)
****

Paavo Järvi, a budding Mahlerian, conducts a crisply pointed Frankfurt Radio performance with a dream cast solo pairing of Alice Coote and Natalie Dessay. Everything goes to plan in the early movements, perhaps too much to plan, intermittently diluting Mahler’s shock therapy with an excess of bottled beauty. The vocal segments are, however, magnificent and the climax is a mere heartbeat short of sensational.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical






May 17, 2010

Saint Saens/Gershwin: piano concertos
(Hänssler)
*****

Play this record blindfold and guess who the soloist might be. The repertory is no clue – the ‘Egyptian’ concerto by Camille Saint-Saens and George Gershwin’s lesser-played Concerto in F. The first is an imperial-era simulation of the mysterious east, the second is Gershwin’s bid to make a symphony orchestra swing. You could go for years without hearing either of them in Carnegie Hall, or missing them much.

But who’s the soloist in this 1993 festival performance, released here on record for the first time? Of all unpredictable keyboard giants, it is none other than Sviatoslav Richter. Aged 78, he is tackling Gershwin for the first time in his life, having always wanted to play the Concerto in F but never being allowed to under Soviet rule. Apparently, Richter’s wife rang the conductor Christoph Eschenbach shortly before the date and told him it was now or never.

Eschenbach changed the Schwetzingen Festival programme and the outcome is a weird and compelling fusion of Prohibition-era rhythms, Russian impetuosity and a German radio orchestra, playing beyond the limits of its natural disciplines. I have never heard the middle movement delivered with such strenuous accuracy by the orchestra and such playfulness by the soloist. In truth, I have never heard the Concerto in F played so convincingly before.

In the Saint-Saens, Richter finds a tone more akin to Debussy, skittering out the notes in controlled fusillades, as if he were a colonial force facing a Mahdi army. He does not always take this frippery seriously. In Gershwin, on the other hand, Richter is totally engaged and engaging, stretching himself at an advanced age to dance to a different rhythm. No point here in withholding superlatives: this is one of the greatest records of all time.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com


 

Three more concerto CDs

Copland, Finzi: clarinet concertos
(Somm)
****

Odd that this pair does not get coupled more often. Both composers were Jews in self-denial who sought identity in rustic folklore. But roots will out. The opening of Copland’s concerto is reminiscent of Mahler, while Finzi’s has a touch of the Bloch. Soloist Sarah Williamson plays with poise and verve; David Curtis conducts the supple Orchestra of the Swan. Appalachian Spring and a Finzi Romance are the fillers in this unassumingly glorious summer pudding.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical





César Franck
(Naïve)
***

Long a staple of orchestral concerts with his Symphonic Variations and D minor symphony, the Belgian-French composer has fallen way off the agenda. Bertrand Chamayou attempts to reverse that trend with a disc of two piano works with orchestra (Scottish National, cond. Stéphane Denève) and two piano solos, none of them life-changing but performed with enough grit and passion to remind us that Franck is worth an occasional hearing. The stunner comes in the finale – a prelude, fugue and variation for piano and harmonium (Olivier Latry) that so aptly and exquisitely conveys the Paris of Napoleon III it must surely be used before long as a television or movie soundtrack. It is so far removed from the austerity of most of Franck’s work that it will make you look again at this neglected inventor.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com





Wellesz: piano and violin concertos
(Capriccio)
***

The Viennese medieval scholar adulated Gustav Mahler and wrote the first biography of Arnold Schoenberg. He fled to England in 1938, becoming professor of music at Oxford. His compositions seldom grip from start to finish but there is plenty in them to occupy the mind, in a style that is modern but never disagreeable. The 1933 piano concerto is vivacious, the 1961 violin concerto meditative. Margarete Babinsky and David Frühwirth are excellent soloists with the Berlin radio orchestra.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com







May 10, 2010

Andrzej Panufnik: Symphonic works
(CPO)
****

When much of Poland’s leadership died in an air crash while preparing to commemorate the 1940 Katyn massacre, my thoughts turned automatically to Andrzej Panufnik. Poland’s foremost composer until his flight west in 1954, Panufnik spoke for a culture that was distorted and suppressed under Communism.

It was always a struggle. His music refused to obey any political dogma, not least the atonality that dominated western modernism. It spoke, instead, for individualism and cultural continuity in a quiet voice, full of fierce ingenuity.

The Tragic Overture that opens this series of his complete orchestral works was written in Warsaw under Nazi occupation and not freely heard until the BBC played it in 1955. A 1948 orchestral Nocturne won Andrzej the Szymanowski Prize, promoting him to sticky kisses from Communist leaders, who then banned the piece for the Stalinist crime of ‘formalism’. A Heroic Overture, written for the 1952 Olympics, was likewise promptly outlawed.

Living at Richmond, with the River Thames flowing at the bottom of his garden, Andrzej distilled his hurt and outrage into a Katyn Epitaph for small orchestra, commemorating Polish professionals and intellectuals who were slaughtered in a forest by Soviet forces. Premiered by Leopold Stokowski in New York, Katyn Epitaph is an contemplation of the pointless cruelties that humanity inflicts upon itself, with solos for violin and flute that linger indelibly in the ear.

When the Polish leadership was wiped out last month, I ransacked my shelves for old recordings – but nothing on disc matched the passion of this brilliant new account by the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Lukasz Borowicz, with Sylwia Mierzejewska as the eloquent solo violin. A masterly piece, the Epitaph is an overwhelming musical response to human suffering - a Polish Adagietto in exile.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical


 

Three retro CDs

Mozart: piano concertos 22 & 23
(BR Klassik)
****

The first time I met Daniel Barenboim he was ushering Rafael Kubelik into a Paris concert hall. The affection between them was symbiotic, and it can be heard in these 1970 collaborations, Kubelik conducting with nostalgic geniality and Barenboim playing with impulsive spontaneity.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical





Tchaikovsky/Dvorak: violin concertos
(Hänssler)
****

When Ida Haendel is referred to as ‘the last of the golden generation’, the cliché obscures the grand, orotund qualities of her tone, its singular richness and subtle muscularity. This Tchaikovsky performance belongs to the sound world of Heifetz and Milstein, but the Dvorak is hers alone, a sweet, unsticky narrative that can only end in a welling of tears. No-one plays it like Ida.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical





Brahms/Mozart: violin concertos
(Naxos Historical)
**

Gioconda de Vito was briefly Ida Haendel’s rival on EMI, helped by her marriage to a recording executive, David Bicknell. Other soloists were rude about her playing and her physical masculinity, but these performances with Thomas Beecham and Paul van Kempen show that she could play a bit – if not at the very highest level. The Mozart is a mite sugary but the Brahms is taut and strongly argued.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical







May 02, 2010

Gavin Bryars: Live at Punkt
(GB Records)
*****

I had been listening all afternoon to music by various living composers and feeling the life-force drain from my soul. The composers were all perfectly good and rather well-known, but they seemed to be writing along a line of collective correctness, an international competition for miserable gits.

Just then, the postman brought three releases on Gavin Bryars’ new label and my day was transformed. Bryars, 67 and going strong, writes slow music in several styles, none of them minimalist and all with an instantaneous impact on heart and mind. Two voices in this set sing Latin hymns with a viola, cello, double-bass (Bryars himself) and electric guitar. The ambience is more nightclub than chapel and the music becomes quieter and more intimate as it progresses. Every song on the disc was composed in the past six years. Anna Maria Friman and John Potter attain an unearthly degree of vocal introspection and the Norwegian audience is hypnotised into silence.

The two other releases are slightly lower octane. I Send You This is an epistolary exchange between the poets John Berger and John Christie, while I Have Heard It Said That A Spirit Entered is a 2008 set by Canadian musicians in which the opening of the violin concerto – soloist Gwen Hoebig – comes off almost as an extension of Mahler’s ninth symphony, gripping and unexpected. Into every modern life, a little Bryars needs to fall.

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Three more CDs to try

Ferneyhough: Terrain
(Kairos)
***

Brian Ferneyhough was a name we used to scare kids into eating their greens. He gets no sweeter with age, making (the booklet says) ‘cruel demands’ on every instrument. There is a coherent idea behind the squeaks and scratches, but the listening effort is extreme. Members of the Elision Ensemble deserve an endurance medal.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com





Heinrich Biber: Mensa Sonora
(Cedille)
***

Chicago, a symphonic citadel, now has a Baroque Band. Led by a British violinist, Garry Clarke, its debut record presents a Salzburg kapellmeister who died half a century before Mozart was born. The playing is bright, if prudent, but there is barely enough invention in Biber’s music to reward an hour’s attention.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com





Ceremony and Devotion: Music for the Tudors
(Coro)
***

If you’ve been reading Hilary Mantel’s Booker-winning Wolf Hall, this set by The Sixteen and Harry Christophers gives that tale a musical context. It’s mostly Byrd, Tallis and Sheppard. Of the three, Byrd sings unto God the most joyous new song.

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April 26, 2010

Dvorak: Symphonic poems
(Supraphon)
****

The four late tone poems by the great Czech composer were never intended for continuous consumption, but as colourful concert preludes. Each of them tells a different fairy story – The Water Goblin, The Noon Witch, The Golden Spinning Wheel, The Wild Dove – in melodies drawn from folk heritage.

What gives the material its power and poignancy was the terrible homesickness that Dvorak suffered during three years in America, 1892-95, a period that yielded his cello concerto and the most popular of his symphonies, From the New World.

The tone poems were written on his return; three were premiered in London, the fourth in Brno. A fifth, The Hero’s Song, followed slightly later and never achieved the same impact. The mastery of orchestral detail is wondrous and the little dramatic touches that Dvorak applies ensure that none of these tales becomes a bedtime story. Early in The Spinning Wheel there are echoes of the New World symphony and the Noon Witch hints at some of Gustav Mahler’s early folk themes.

The Czech Philharmonic, conducted by its old Aussie pal Sir Charles Mackerras, does not sound in top form after an inconsistent run of chief conductors (the latest is Eliahu Inbal). Its woodwinds, though, are worth the ticket price – lucid, long-breathed and seductive as a water nymph to a shipwrecked sailor.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com


 

Three more middle-Europe CDs

Hans Gál: violin-piano sonatas
(Avie)
***

An Austrian émigré in Edinburgh, Gál (1890-1987) wrote in a Brahmsian vein all his life. The music is smiley to a fault – there’s a snatch of Happy Birthday in the 1935 third sonata – but its charm wears thin. Annette-Barbara Vogel and Juhani Lagerspetz find an appropriately light touch.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com





Vaughan Williams: Household music &c
(Capriccio)
***

How does Vaughan Williams sound in Hungarian? Rather wonderful when played by the Budapest Strings, conductor Bela Banfalvi. The Household Music is tartly intimate, the 1944 oboe concerto (soloist, Lajos Lencses) is aptly poignant and the Thomas Tallis Fantasy runs very close to gorgeous. The one shortcoming on this bold disc is the William Blake songs. Andreas Weller’s German accent jars the ear, and the breathing feels laboured. Philip Langridge used to phrase these songs to perfection.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com





Josef Suk: piano trio &c
(CPO)
***

Suk was Dvorak’s son-in-law, leader of the Czech Philharmonic and founder of a famous string quartet. The early opus numbers in this collection are unremarkable but a mid-life Elegy for piano trio has the haunting air of Ravel’s La Valse, deftly played by BBC New Generation artists, the Atos Trio.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com







April 19, 2010

Milo
(Orchid)
****

Mark-Anthony Turnage, 50 this year, is the most distinctive of British composers with an instantly recognisable sound. This disc is built around his music for cello and piano – a set of three lullabies and the captivating Milo, named for his baby son and so tender that you wonder whether this could possibly be the same composer who wrote the savage opera, Greek.

But Turnage, even at his most domesticated, has a wiry, terse muscularity that steers him clear of cliché and imprints his signature on the score. I don’t think I could manage to fall asleep to any of these pieces, but I do keep wanting to hear them again. The cellist is the sweet-toned Guy Johnston and he is partnered by Katharine Stott who, in one of the companion pieces – the Benjamin Britten C major sonata of 1961 – achieves an ear-pricking bell-like effect on the piano to match the cello’s pizzicato.

The remaining pieces on disc are by Britten’s teacher, Frank Bridge. Written just before and during the First World War, they are neither as penetrative as Elgar’s parallel cello reflections nor as pungent as Britten. All credit, though, to the small Orchid label that produced this thoughtful compilation, none of it obviously commercial yet, on second hearing, irresistible. Guy Johnson, it turns out, is godfather to baby Milo. Something more than music went into the making of this album.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical


 

Three Mahler CDs to try

1st symphony in D major
(Capriccio)
*

Christoph Eschenbach is an accomplished international musician but I have never been convinced by his Mahler tempi. This performance with the DSO Berlin is not going to change my mind. The opening loses tension as it strives for beauty, while the third-movement funeral march plods along without requisite irony. There is no sense of discovery, no exuberance of youth. In the Five Rückert Lieder that follow, Christine Schäfer nearly drowns in her own vibrato.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical





2nd symphony in C minor
(Tudor)
**

The British conductor Jonathan Nott, in his Bamberg Symphony cycle, obtains crisp textures and intelligent tempi. What this performance lacks is the edge of madness, a sense that the world could end if the music does not deliver the promised redemption. Anne Schwanewilms and Lioba Braun are the soloists and there are no surprises.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical





9th symphony in D minor
(Hänssler)
****

Roger Norrington, a period-instrument specialist, attempts (in his own words) ‘to recreate the sound world which Mahler would have taken for granted in 1909/10.’ Using as his benchmark the 1938 Bruno Walter Vienna Philharmonic recording of the ninth symphony, he aims for a consistent, pure tone without vibrato. The asperity can be excessive, but the performance by Stuttgart Radio orchestra is pungent and compelling. Mahler gave conductors a great deal of interpretative freedom in his scores. Norrington’s is not the only path to the heart of the Ninth, but it is a profound and coherent option.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical







April 12, 2010

James Rhodes: now would all freudians please stand aside
(Signum)
****

Few pianists can change the sound of a concert grand without tampering with its insides, as John Cage did, or adopting an eccentric regime in the manner of Glenn Gould. James Rhodes, bookmark the name, does it without resorting to gimmickry.

His sound, from the opening of the Bach Toccata in Ferruccio Busoni’s transcription, cannot be mistaken for that of any other pianist, alive or dead. It is confrontational, brittle, intermittently seductive. Further adjectives are superfluous and potentially misleading. The sound is what it is, like it or not. My personal reaction veered from curiosity to irritation to wonderment and all the way back again.

Rhodes, whose last record was titled Razor blades, little pills and big pianos, has a turbulent psychiatric history and no formal music education. He is 34 years old and has just been signed by the rock division of Warners, more for his attitude than for the music he plays, which is irreproachably classical.

The Bach pieces here ring true and the Beethoven sonata, number 30, opus 109, is done without excessive introspection. If anything, it is a little underdone, too matter-of-fact for comfortable listening, a tad lacking in tenderness. Nevertheless, it clings to the ear long after the final note and the residue is by no means unpleasant. There is an original talent at work on this piano, and we are going to hear much more of it.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com


 

Three more piano CDs to try

Graham Fitkin: Circuit
(Bis)
***

A Cornish minimalist, Fitkin plays two pianos against each other and an orchestra at varying speeds rather as John Cage did with gramophone noises though to more pleasurable, hypnotic effect. Kathryn Stott and Noriko Ogawa are the soloists in the 20-minute Circuit and other pieces. The longer you listen, the more you are drawn in.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical





Danzas Argentinas
(Avie)
***

This album is a border bender. Of the three composers, only Ginastera is Argentine. The liveliest pieces are by the Cuban Lecuona – renowned for Malaguena - and the emptiest by the 19th century American travelling player, Louis Gottschalk. Claudia Schellenberger catches all the right rhythms in a fun compilation.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com





Mahler/Cooke: 10th symphony
(divine art)
**

All of Mahler’s symphonies were published in piano versions in his lifetime, apart from the unfinished tenth. That omission is repaired by composer Ribald Stevenson and pianist Christopher White, using Deryck Cooke’s fleshed-out score when they could probably have worked it out from Mahler’s own sketches. The resultant curiosity has its moments, without ever capturing the terror in the piece

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical







April 5, 2010

Rachmaninov: piano concertos 2 and 3
(Avie)
**

These are two of the strangest Rachmaninovs I have ever heard, irritating on first impression, intriguing on repetition. Opening the C-minor concerto on the slow side of moderato, Vasily Petrenko drops to a plod to let the lugubrious Simon Trpceski bend the adagio into a pretzel of tortured yearnings. Together, they then beat up the finale into a stop-start road chase.

The D-minor concerto goes astray in Trpceski’s peculiar phrasing, at times compelling, at other times sounding as if he speaks music as a foreign language. With brilliant tone and surgical accuracy, the wayward Macedonian contorts the familiar work beyond recognition – which is no small feat – and leaves the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic playing on for dear life.

Part of the listener’s fascination is speculating whether the conductor and soloist managed to discuss interpretation beforehand, or were merely winging it. I guess the test will be if they ever work together again. In the meantime, we get to eavesdrop on a broken-telephone Rachmaninov conversation and the usually reliable Petrenko gets a rare red mark for eccentricity.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com


 

Three string quartet CDs for springtime

Beethoven: string quartets 2, 6, 9, 13-15
(Virgin)
****

I have played these test-pressings so often they are almost worn out. In a current flush of extraordinary string quartets – Auryn, Ebene, Belcea, Pavel Haas, Wihan, to name just the young pretenders - the Berlin-based Artemis bring a confident muscularity to mainstream repertoire. Playing on the balls of their feet, they attack Beethoven at high speed and with no deference to false tradition. The early works are done with glib abandon while the Grosse Fuge opening is so loud it is almost orchestral. But the internal dialogue is vivid and contemporary: you really want to know how this conversation is going to develop and how they will bring it to an end.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical





Matyas Seiber: string quartets
(Delphian)
****

Three quartets by the British-Hungarian composer span the decades of his short working life. The first, from the 1920s, is inflected with Kodaly-style folk resonances. The second, dated 1934-5, attempts fusion between Schoenberg’s serialism and a spot of blues. The third, written for the Amadeus Quartet in 1951 and titled Quarteto Lirico, finds its compass in Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite and ends in exquisite beauty. Seiber, killed in a South African car crash in 1960, has fallen into neglect. The Edinburgh Quartet play his work with deserved passion and the wonderment of discovery.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical





Beat Furrer: 3rd string quartet
(Kairos)
**

Furrer’s quartet ‘begins in a state of paralysis: toneless grinding, individual hard and high notes, dry, gripping, knocking, vibrating – isolated sounds occurring in a seemingly random way’. That’s the sleeve note speaking. If this sort of thing turns you on, KNM Berlin’s performance is true to what I’ve seen of the score.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com







March 29, 2010

Peter-Anthony Togni: Lamentatio Jeremiae Prophetae
(ECM)
*****

The Canadian composer Peter-Anthony Togni has a fascination shared by Stravinsky with the tolling cadences of the Prophet Jeremiah, who warned that the city would be destroyed for its sins and then lamented its fate in testimony and consolation. Of all the recorded offerings for Holy Week (see below), this is by some measure the most original and affecting that has come my way.

Beneath a mixed chorus, Togni bravely inscribes a bass clarinet as his only instrumentation. It is a brilliant decision. The lower registers conjure some of the tropes of Arabic music, while the higher wails hint at klezmer playfulness. The virtuoso clarinettist Jeff Reilly extends his cadenzas across the history of sound, from monotony to modernism, in a performance that is dominant and often hypnotic. Lydia Adams directs the Elmer Iseler Singers, with solo soprano Rebecca Whelan.

Putting on this record without reading the booklet, I was smitten by Togni’s atmospheric force, imposing a contemplative mood with a gloss of consolation that is the quest of all faiths at this time of year. There is something epiphanic about this music; resist it, if you can.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical


 

Three more CDs for Holy Week

Bach: St Matthew’s Passion
(Decca)
****

Leipzig is where Bach lived and its Gewandhaus orchestra and St Thomas choir perform his music with a rich, deep sonority, immutable tradition and few of the ‘historically informed’ correctnesses of recent times. It’s a collegial experience, unadorned by solo vocalists, other than Thomas Quasthoff. Riccardo Chailly conducts almost as first among equals.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical





Bach: Cantatas BWV 140, 61, 29
(BMG)
***

Nikolaus Harnoncourt slows things down to period tempo and lowers the pitch. The results are persuasive and beautiful without ever feeling as natural as Leipzig’s. Soloists include Christine Schäfer, Bernarda Fink, Gerland Finley and Christian Gerhaher.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com





Osvaldo Golijov: La Pasion Segun San Marcos
(DG)
**

The fusion that Golojov makes of Latin American rhythms and rituals and ecumenical themes – Crucifixion with Kaddish - has wide appeal. Premiered in Stuttgart in the millennium year, the Pasion was ovated for a full half-hour and acclaimed later by a Boston critic as 'the first indisuptably great composition of the 21st century'. This recording, taken in Caracas, is either more sedate than the first eruptions or the novelty has worn thin. Midway in, my ears were crying out for a creative dissonance.

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March 23, 2010

Mieczyslaw Weinberg: Sonatas for viola solo
(Neos/BR Klassik)
****

There is not a lot of modern music for solo viola that you’d want to hear twice. Start with four dust-dry Hindemith sonatas and move on through Honegger, Krenek, Ligeti, beyond. Like a philosopher at a rave, the viola struggles to assert its character and offer engaging conversation.

Mieczyslaw Weinberg does not seem to recognise these limitations. The composer closest to Shostakovich, Weinberg (1919-1996) arrived in the Soviet Union in 1939 as a refugee from Nazi-occupied Poland, only to be imprisoned under Stalin’s terror.

Like Shostakovich, he found ways of conveying reality without getting arrested again. In the four viola sonatas, written between 1971 and 1983, he streaks gloom with ribald irony and Jewish melody, most emphatically in the fourth and last. Weinberg must have been aware that Shostakovich’s deathbed work was also for viola and there are hints of valediction in this eloquent last piece.

Julia Rebekka Adler, co-principal viola of the Munich Philharmonic, is all fire and ice – technically precise yet blazing with conviction in works and instrument alike. Introspective in the four solo sonatas, she saves her best for a 1945 clarinet sonata, transcribed for viola and piano, lamenting the Holocaust in Chassidic melodies with wry, self-knowing twists. More than just works of music, these are fragments of modern history, submitted in evidence.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical


 

Three CDs for the weekend

Quincy Porter: Complete viola works
(Dorian)
***

A conservative Brahmin, professor of music at Yale and a Pulitzer prize winner, Porter has vanished into the limbo reserved for those who look resolutely backwards. He wrote best for his own instrument, the viola and Eliesha Nelson, quick fingers and a nimble mind, brings out long lines of lyricism, accompanied by John McLaughlin Williams as pianist and conductor. Porter’s 1948 viola concerto is a folksy piece of the kind that Aaron Copland was writing for the movies, a slice of American heritage.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com



Rodion Shchedrin: The Enchanted Wanderer
(Mariinsky Live)
***

Written for Lorin Maazel and the New York Philharmonic in 2002, Shchedrin’s semi-narrated, two-hour opera is as Russian as can be with a plot by Nikolai Leskov, tolling bells and a deep, bass choir. The beauties are bleak, bold and remote and the live Mariinsky performance under Valery Gergiev contains rapt singing from Sergei Aleksashkin and Kristina Kaputsinskaya.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com





Shostakovich, Schnittke: piano trios
(CPO)
***

The first Shostakovich piano trio is an edgy student work of 1923, the second a sombre 1944 reflection on Hitler’s destruction of the Jews; Schnittke’s is a retake of an earlier string trio. Freddy Kempf, Pierre Bensaid and Alexander Chaushian give a congenial 2004 account, less assertive than Russian recordings but in pristine sound.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com







March 17, 2010

Brahms: choral works
(Tudor)
****

Brahms, we are often told, is not for the young or the English. Well, here's the counter-argument. Robin Ticciati, 27, is the brightest of the new crop of Young British Batons. Alice Coote is a superb contralto who sails through the Alto Rhapsody with the aplomb of Dame Janet Baker, her sometime teacher, and a sweetness all her own.

This is rapturous stuff. Entering like a distant churchbell, Coote controls the dynamic of the piece, never singing louder than luscious. Ticciati bends the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra and Bavarian Radio men's chorus to her mood, achieving an organic unity that sounds, as it should, almost effortless. It lasts less than 12 minutes and you want it to go on forever.

What I find so impressive about Ticciati's conducting is its discretion. Three of these pieces - especially Schicksalied, the Song of Destiny – can all too easily lapse into bluffness and bombast. Ticciati makes sure that the music overwhelms any unpleasant historical connotations. His chorus strains at the leash but it is the woodwinds that set the tone as a voice of conscience. You’d have to go back 20 years, to Claudio Abbado in Berlin, to hear Germans sing and play Brahms with such grace and refinment.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical


 

Three more from Brahms & Co.

Brahms: violin-piano sonatas
(DG)
****

Just when you think Anne-Sophie Mutter has nothing more to offer beyond the ice-queen brand, she comes up with a performance of the Brahms sonatas that is humbling in its quietude. Sample the Adagio of the G-major sonata for a lesson in mature self-exploration. Mutter is almost inside herself with concentration and Lambert Orkis plays porcelain accompaniment in a reading of fragile transparency, irresistible throughout.

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Herzogenberg: string quintet, quartet
(CPO)
***

One of Brahms’s best buddies, Heinrich |von Herzogenberg (1843-1900) excelled himself in the quintet, written after his wife’s death in 1892 and based on a Friedrich Rückert poem that Mahler also contemplated. The quartet is a callow, pre-Brahmsian work. The players are Cologne's fine Minguet Quartet.

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Röntgen: Symphonies 8 and 15
(CPO)
**

Of all Brahms's acolytes, none was more slavish than the Dutchman Julius Engelbert Röntgen (1855-1932), concertmaster of the Gewandhaus orchestra. Long phrases in the andante of his C# minor 15th symphony are lifted straight from Brahms’s second; the wordless soprano in the F# minor eighth symphony evokes the Alto Rhapsody. Strictly for curiosity value, David Porcelijn conducts the NDR radio orchestra, with Carmen Fuggiss.

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March 10, 2010

Mahler: 2nd symphony
(London Philharmonic)
*****

Longer than any performance on record except Otto Klemperer’s last gasp, this live Royal Festival Hall recording from February 1989 is a legend to the 3,000 of us who were there and even more so to many who weren’t. Klaus Tennstedt, the most sensitive and impulsive of conductors, opened the Resurrection at a tempo of such stubborn deliberation that it seemed the second coming would never come.

But instead of causing impatience, the interpretation exerts an irresistible tension for 94 eventful minutes. There is nothing vain or wilful in Tennstedt’s approach. By stretching textures, he allows us to hear inner voices, to hold our breaths as a double-bass plucks a solo pizzicato, to marvel at the interwoven conversations of the vast symphonic mass. The opening movement ends in dark dread, the second in mute helplessness. Then Mahler hits the big drums and the works rises out of the known world into realms where the devil has the best tunes.

Mezzo-soprano Jard van Nes offers tranquility in the Urlicht song, but Judgement Day follows with chorus and soprano Yvonne Kenny and the outcome remains uncertain until the conductor drops his arms and, in the frozen hush, we discover, half-amazed, that we are still alive. The experience on record, engineered with maximum discretion by Tony Faulkner, is hardly less shattering than in the hall that night in February 1989. This is one of the elite Mahler recordings that, indispensable and unforgettable, yield a new understanding of a mighty work.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical


 

Three concerto discs for the weekend

Jean-Yves Thibaudet plays Gershwin
(Decca)
****

Bless the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for its jazz moves and its lead clarinet, Steven Barta, for his waterfront soul. Reverting to the original band versions of Gershwin’s works, the orchestra (under conductor Marin Alsop) bends the opening of Rhapsody in Blue and the Concerto in F to slinky cool. Best moment is Barta at the opening of I Got Rhythm. This is seriously moody classics.

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Beethoven: piano concertos 4 & 5
(ECM)
**

Till Fellner’s deft touch gets the G-major concerto going, but the orchestral response is not of equal calibre. Either the Montreal Symphony Orchestra had a bad-hair day with Kent Nagano or it is no longer the crack unit that Charles Dutoit took to Decca. In both concertos the orchestral intervention is rigid where the soloist is liquid and abrasive where he strokes silk. Something’s awry in Montreal.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical





Bernstein, Bloch, Barber: violin concertos
(Bis)
****

Clever to put the three American works for violin and orchestra on the same disc, and with an Israeli soloist who reaches for their exilic roots. Vadim Gluzman is an expressive player with a clean tone, presenting the arguments in Bernstein’s Serenade as if they were Russian dialectics. In Bloch’s Baal Shem he avoids the pitfalls of mawkishness and in Barber’s concerto the clichés of prairie life. His cerebral tone inspires fine playing from the Sao Paolo orchestra under John Neschling.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical







March 3, 2010

Via Crucis
(Virgin)
*****

The counter-tenor Philippe Jaroussky is not just a good-looking young man with a very high voice. He is an Alpine mountaineer of uninsurable risk, doing stuff that gives record labels the shakes. His last album consisted of opera arias by a son of J S Bach, esoteric material but still within the classical mould. Here, he breaks right out of the baroque and gets low down and dirty with Italian country music of the early renaissance – earthy and authentic.

His partners in grime are the Corsican chorus Barbara Furtuna, the soprano Nuria Rial and the Paris-based L’Arpeggiata ensemble under Christina Pluhar’s lead. Here’s how it works. Philippe or Nuria sings a repertory piece by Biber or Allegri, Legrenzi or Monteverdi, all high-church and incense. Then the Barbara Furtuna boys come right back at them with a Stabat mater from an island church or a virgin’s lullaby.

The harmony is so close it could be barber-shop, but this is a barber’s where the patrons get their throats cut. Violence is innate to the gravelly melody and it spills over into the church pieces, reminding us both of their peasant roots and of their murderous proximity to the Balkans.

The interweaving of rough and smooth, rustic and serene, is irresistible and the sound has an immediacy as forceful as a rock concert. If there were an Oscar for originality in classical recording, this disc would be a cert.

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Three more for the weekend

Liszt Suisse
(Landor)
****

Liszt is red meat for the big beasts of the piano. What makes this recital so arresting is the low-key approach that Libor Novacek takes to the Swiss episodes of Liszt's travel diaries, as well the later, lesser known Consolations. The meditative, priestly aspect of Liszt is often eclipsed by virtuosic display. Not here, though. Softly, reflectively, Novacek portrays a deeper, introspective Liszt, seldom rising above double-forte.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical



Schubert: Arpeggione sonata and lieder
(Naïve)
**

Written for a bowed guitar, the Arpeggione sonata is usually played in a cello and piano transcription. Antoine Tamestit takes it upscale on viola, adding a more voice-like timbre at the expense of mellow meditation. Markus Hadulla is a compliant pianist and Sandrine Piau sings two lieder in a mix’n’match programme.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical





Shostakovich and Barber violin concertos
***

Dylana Jenson, once an American favourite, has fallen off the radar – unfairly on the evidence of this self-published recording with the LSO, conducted by her husband, David Lockington. In the first Shostakovich concerto she sounds less tortured than most; in the Barber she is the sweet-toned prairie wife, all motherhood and apple-pie. Some of her phrases are slightly stilted. I suspect she needs to be heard live.

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February 24, 2010

L’univers de Marin Marais
(Spektral)
****

Played by Gerard Depardieu in the movie Tous les matins du monde, Marin Marais (1656-1728) acquired the kind of celebrity that distorts not just the substance of his works but the drama of his life. Marais was a master of the bass viol, also known as the viola da gamba, ancestor of the modern cello.

But he was never more than first among equals in the Sun King’s court ensemble at Versailles. What this record does is strip away the false celebrity by presenting pieces of Marais together with works by less-known fellow-members of the band.

A shoemaker’s son, Marais studied composing with the chef d’orchestre, Jean-Baptiste Lully, and was paid up to play whenever Louis XIV felt like dancing. The ensemble was not a happy one. Two Forquerays, father and son, so hated one another that the jealous elder player had his boy thrown in jail to end the competition. The group also had a Couperin and his nephew, and Marais brought two nephews of his own onto the payroll. Nepotism, as they say, begins at home.

Played with his colleagues, it is impossible to tell the genius Marais from supposedly lesser composers, since all wrote functional pieces for the king’s pleasure. Only when Marais writes a dirge for his own tombeau does his originality stand out, stark and strong. Jakob David Rattinger, the Austrian viol player, is accompanied by Rosario Conte and Ralf Waldner in a performance of grace, intimacy and tactful modesty. If you’ve had it up to here with celebrity, this disc is a welcome corrective.

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Three cellos for the weekend

Dutilleux, Lutoslawski: cello works
(Bis)
****

Two concertos and two solos written for the grand sweep of Mstislav Rostropovich are tough nuts for anyone to crack without sounding imitative. Christian Poltera pulls it off by being entirely his own man, introspective and precise, untroubled by precedent. What seems tentative in the opening Enigme of Dutilleux’s Toute un Monde Lointain is serenely vindicated in the closing Hymne. He applies the same authoritative coherence to the elusive pointillisms of Lutoslawski’s concerto. Jac van Steen conducts the Austrian radio orchestra.

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Haydn: cello concertos 1-3
(Berlin Classics)
****

Only two of these are definitely by Haydn, the middle one in D major is probably by his brother, Michael. Jan Vogler has a lovely chatty way with Ludwig Güttler’s Virtuosi Saxonae ensemble, essing the solo line out of the mix rather than lording above it. There is a domesticity to the sound that feels absolutely authentic. Vogler clinches a fourth star by playing cadenzas by Maurice Gendron, quite the most elegant soloist even seen on a cello, immaculate from head to bow.

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Adolphe, Auerbach, Jalbert, Tsontakis: cello sonatas
(ArtistLed)
**

Husband and wife David Finckel and Wu Han play four works they have premiered, none of them hard on the ear. George Tsontakis, a Grawemeyer winner, is the most eager to please, but Pierre Jalbert shares his romantic ilk and Bruce Adolphe is soft as marshmallow. Lera Auerbach’s 2002 sonata offers a polite disagreement between cello and piano. Taken together, however, these four works pretend the second half of the 20th century never really happened.

>Buy this CD at ArtistLed.com






February 17, 2010

Thomas Adès: Tevot
(EMI)
***

The British composer, nudging 40, is at a turning point. For half his life he has been a fixture with top orchestras – Berlin, New York, Cleveland and Amsterdam – without ever stamping his footprint on the epoch. His music is well-made and easy on the ear, avoiding offensive extremes. Tevot, written for Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic in 2007, takes 22 minutes to get back exactly where it started. No musicians are harmed in the making of the piece and the sound is superb. The title is Hebrew with mystic intimations, but nowhere is there ethereality or transcendence.

Rattle has called Adès ‘the most extravagantly talented’ of younger composers, but his sources are so catholic, ranging from Bach to Kurtag, as to be conservative. There is something retro in all that Adès writes - retro to the point of decadence. The overture, waltz and finale from his first opera, Powder Her Face – famous for irs fellatio scene – brim with effervescent mischief while leaving very little residue of an musical originality. One would be hard pressed on this evidence to tell Adès apart from five or six of his contemporaries.

In Three Studies from Couperin he plays pretty games with baroque amusements. The 2005 violin concerto, titled Concentric Paths, goes likewise round and round in movements titled Rings, Paths and Rounds. Anthony Marwood and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe take the route in their capable stride.

As an early admirer who gave Adès his first television appearance, I am still waiting for a work that proclaims his individuality. He needs to get off the middle of the road and dig a trench that is triumphantly his own.

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Three vocals for the weekend

Rolando Villazon, Tenor
(DG)
**

This is almost too painful to play twice, a remembrance of what might have been. Villazon, who is overcoming a vocal crisis by playing judge in a television game show, has a sandpaper moment at the opening of O Sole Mio, a wobble in West Side Story and a judder of genre confusion in Phantom of the Opera. These tracks, recorded in Prague two months ago, are spliced together with his former resplendence in Ombra ma fui with Paul McCreesh, his Salzburg Rodolfo. A tacky, misguided disc.

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Gerald Finley
(Chandos)
***

The two pearls on this album of arias in English are from operas that Finley created – Batter my Heart from John Adams’s Doctor Atomic and a poignant hiatus from Mark-Anthony Turnage’s The Silver Tassie, ‘Oh bring me a pint of wine’. The tune is a folk ballad but Turnage’s orchestration and Finley’s delivery give it skin-crawling terror. The rest of the programme is a display of fine dramatic singing from Bizet to Wagner, in English.

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Mike Brewer’s World Tour
(Delphian)
****

The National Youth Choir of Great Britain go all Soweto in an African wedding dance, Latino in Pueblo Sunrise Song, Qing Dynasty in Molihua and deep Maghreb in Yelli bo’dek. Quite apart from vocal versatility, the kids seem completely comfortable with multicultural crossover. There are ragged patches in the Arabic but on the whole Mike Brewer upholds his street cred as top choral trainer.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical






February 10, 2010

Bernard Herrmann: Music from Hangover Square and Citizen Kane
(Chandos)
****

Hermann’s score for the 1945 homicidal movie Hangover Square so captivated the teenaged Stephen Sondheim that he sat through the film twice in order to memorise a two-second shot of a page of piano concerto. He has repeatedly told the story – how his eye was drawn to the page and how one chord - B#, C#, E, G# - lodged in his mind as the musical DNA of Sweeney Todd.

Based on a Patrick Hamiton novel, the film follows a schizophrenic composer who is compelled to kill a girl every time he hears a particular high-pitched sound. Hermann’s score, London-foggy and sorrowful, is almost a character in its own right and the piano concerto is starker by far than Brief Encounter and other wartime scores. Reconstructed here from manuscript and played by the BBC Philharmonic under Ramon Gumba, with Martin Roscoe as soloist, its pathos wears thin after a while, but Herrmann’s ideas are always gripping – as Alfred Hitchcock would soon discover. The film Hangover Square is hard to find; you can watch six minutes of it here: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x37kmy_hangover-square_shortfilms.

Citizen Kane, so famous we know its lines heart, sounds quite different as pure music without all those Rosebud actors getting in the way. Once again, Herrmann’s knack for dictating atmosphere is evident from the opening growl. Less well remembered, by me at least, is the score’s diversity – its polka and allegrettos and the soaring aria from the projected Salammbo opara, sung here by the delicious Orla Boylan. Seeing Citizen Kane again on DVD, you can imagine Bernard Hermann behind the screen, pulling as many strings as Orson Welles.

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Three Russians for the weekend

Rachmaninov: Symphonic Dances
(Avie)
****

Is any conductor making more records these days than Liverpool’s Vasily Petrenko? With a Shostakovich cycle for Naxos and Rachmaninov for Avie, Petrenko is covering the Russian rep in big strides. His rhythms in the Dances, sprung like a new mattress, are irresistible, his gloomy Isle of the Dead less gripping. The playing is faultless; it has been decades since Royal Liverpool Phil sounded this rich.

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Rachmaninov: 2nd symphony
(Naxos)
****

Leonard Slatkin has a naïve passion for Rachmaninov, tempered by analytical restrain. Recorded live in Detroit, his structure in the second symphony is as solid as a T-model chassis and the adagio is never allowed to sink into mush. The soloists - concertmaster Emanuelle Boisvert and clarinet Theodore Oien - are world class.

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Rodion Shchedrin: Naughty Limericks
(Melodiya)
****

As mischievous as any People’s Artist of the Soviet Union managed to be, Shchedrin razzle-dazzled the workers and peasants with his 1963 concerto for orchestra, still crazy after all these years. More daring still in the second piano concerto, he tweaked the commissars’ ears with 12-note rows and dissonances. Detached from grey Soviet conditions, the music can still light up a long winter.

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February 3, 2010

Roman Maciejewski: Requiem
(PN Muza)
****

Started in a Swedish hospital bed in January 1945, this Mass for the Dead amounts to one Pole’s attempt to make sense of the century’s savageries. Both text and music are rooted in strict Roman Catholic usage. The tonality is traditional and free of the usual agendas, modernist and nationalist.

Fourteen years in the making, the work is closer in spirit to Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem than to any East European counterpart. Its dedication is ‘to the victims of human ignorance’, a universal community, politically non-aligned. Premiered at the 1960 Warsaw Autumn Festival, Maciejewski’s masterpiece was wildly acclaimed but there have been few performances since – the CD booklet lists only six.

An exile for most of his life, Maciejewski (1910-1998) married a Swedish dancer at Dartington on a 1938 English tour and spent the war years in her country. He worked with Ingmar Bergman before an invitation from the pianist Arthur Rubinstein took him to Hollywood, where he refused to oblige his sponsor with a new concerto and turned down a job as head of music at MGM. For the next 26 years, Maciejewski played organ in two California churches. He was not the kind of composer who pushes himself to the forefront.

This debut recording of his Requiem is taken from an epic Warsaw performance at the end of communism in April 1989, Tadeusz Strugala conducting a tightly structured account with outstanding soloists – Zdzislawa Donat, Jadwiga Rappé, Jerzy Knetig and Januszk Niziolek. The work receives its UK premiere this week at Westminster Abbey, followed by a BBC relay. Once the ear adjusts to its Catholic and aesthetic conservatism, a compelling humanity surges through.

>Buy this CD at Pigasus


 

Three for the weekend

Wedding Cake
(Onyx)
****

The finest Debussy player of today duets with his new bride in Wedding Cake by Saint-Saens, before working through Fauré’s Dolly suite and Ravel’s La Valse to an exquisite rendition of Debussy’s Petite Suite. Wedding pictures of Pascal and Ami Rogé decorate the booklet and the recital includes a newly composed tribute to the bride by the California composer Paul Chihara. It’s all rather touching, a perfect Valentine’s gift.

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From the Heart
(Signum)
**

If what your life is missing is an a capella version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, this Kings Singers release might give cause for excitement. Trouble is, the arrangement cannot find its tonal centre and there is an excess of overdubbing. More effective are John Brunning’s Pie Jeus and the bluegrass adaptation, Out of the Woods.

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Mozart: flute concertos
(Oehms)
****

Reverting to an ego-free, pre-James Galway style, Bernhard Krabastch plays the two concertos on a simple wooden flute with the Salzburg Mozarteum, sympathetically conducted by Ivor Bolton. The difference is just so refreshing. This Mozart feels organic, fairtrade and eco-friendly; it is rounded off by a pretty C-major concerto by Johann Baptist Wendling (1723-1797). Mr Krabatsch has flair without swagger, a nice touch.

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January 28, 2010

Not Just Dowland
(Wigmore Hall Live)
*****

London’s Wigmore Hall is an intimate place where 540 ticket holders can feel like a family around a fireside. The hall has been releasing selected soirees for the past couple of years – this is its 34th CD – and while many album have been fine souvenirs of shared or missed experience, Carolyn Sampson’s set of 400-year old courtly songs is in a rapturous league of its own.

A soprano of serene versatility, I have seen Sampson hold her own against a full orchestra and modern piano but here, with just solo lute for company, she finds a commanding quietude. Forget the husky sorrows of breathless Sting or the nervous hypertension of Alfred Deller, this is narrative singing of the highest quality, flawless in technique, every note on pitch, every phrase effortlessly fitted to its place. Dowland apart, she sings The songs are by Monteverdi, Grandi, Caccini and more.

The pleasure of her perfection is enhanced by the diversity of her selection, ranging from prickly Venetian heat to the prim cruelties of the English Tudor court. Ballads by the lesser-known Robert Johnson (1583-1633) bookend the recital and so intense is the concentration that the audience is almost inaudible. Lutenist Matthew Wadsworth, who is blind, is a powerful presence in his own right and the sound engineering by Tony Faulkner is as natural as it comes. Short of actually being there, this is live music at its best. Some enchanted evening...

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And three for the weekend

Schubert: Die Schöne Müllerin
(Decca)
****

So riveting is the heroic Jonas Kaufmann in his first descent from opera to lieder, so effortless in transition from mood to mood, that the first hint of brittleness, in the ninth of the songs, strikes the ear as a character flaw. It isn’t, of course. There is nothing in the music that Kaufmann cannot handle. The fault is with a record industry that no longer spends time in studio, even for patch-ups. This is a live Minich recital from July 2009, repackaged without editorial refinement. Terrific as Kaufmann is, he could have been historic. The accompanist is Helmut Deutsch.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical



Schubert: Die Schöne Müllerin
(Hänssler)
****

The incomparable Fritz Wunderlich is miked too close in this 1964 radio recital and his partner Hubert Giessen is too recessed. Schubert comes so easily to Wunderlich that he can lull the brain to complacency. One longs for more Herculean struggle.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical





Mahler: Selected songs
(ANTO)
****

If you’re passing a branch of the Austrian National Tourist Office and ask nicely, they will give you a free set by the splendid Angelika Kirschlager, accompanied by the hard-working Helmut Deutsch. The songs are intended for male voice, but Ms K’s mezzo gets deep into the angst, especially in the younger works. The package also contains Pierre Boulez’s clinical and contentious account of the sixth symphony.

>Buy this CD at Austrian National Tourist Office






January 22, 2010

Franz Liszt: Etudes
(DG)
****

The new piano prodigy on the once-exclusive Deutsche Grammophon is the Munich child of a German father and a Japanese mother, winner of a first award at seven years old and of many more in her teens. Now 21, Alice Sara Ott is being launched by DG in all major markets with a booklet interview of impeccable blandness in which she appears to have nothing interesting to say on any musical subject.

At the keyboard, however, she has plenty to say. The most striking thing about her recital of Liszt’s etudes of ascendant difficulty is the colour differentiation that she manages between one piece and the next while maintaining an underlying character that is, throughout, entirely her own. Alice Sara Ott cannot be mistaken for any other pianist, alive or in legend.

Hear her attack the Mazeppa and the approach is far from any Polish steppes, closer to the sound world of Schoenberg’s little piano pieces. In the Eroica, she is skittish, irreverent and altogether unimpressed by Beethovenian antecedents. And in Evening Harmonies she is more like someone who is going out for the night than tucked up at a warm fireside. Engaging and enterprising, Alice Sara Ott is a new-century pianist, looking resolutely ahead and rarely at antecedents. No teacher or mentor is named in her official biography. That suggests supreme confidence, originality and, perhaps, a streak of ingratitude.

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Three more piano newbies

Chopin: complete waltzes
(DG)
**

The style that works so well for Alice Sara Ott in Liszt falls a little flat in the overworked Chopin dances for which she professes ‘a deep attachment’. Ott adds an edgy micro-beat to opening phrases and adopts a contrived hesitancy in the 1831 A-minor – devices that are never substantiated by a coherent vision. Her playing is never less than impressive, but the interpretation is a league and a day behind Ingrid Fliter’s unaffected recent contemplations on EMI.

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Handel: Suites
(Air Note)
****

Racha Arodaky is a French pianist of Syrian origin who commits the political offence of playing Handel on a modern piano. Avoiding the mien of reverence that English artists adopt for Mighty Handel, she runs through the pieces with conversational flair, breathless at times but always entertaining. Racha lists Murray Perahia as her teacher but I hear nothing of his restraint in her uninhibited Mediterranean inflections. I’d like to hear her live and might seek out the festival she runs in the south of France.

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Mozart: piano concertos 22, 24
(Naïve)
****

David Greilsammer, Jerusalem born, plays conducts and writes his own cadenzas for these even-numbered concertos, less profound than the oddities on either side of them. In the booklet, he then analyses the performance with two players in his New York-based Suedama Ensemble. The openness is refreshing, as is the pinpoint clarity of intonation. Tempi are brisk and the freshness appealing. Greilsammer and friends sound, even to a Mozart sceptic like me, like they are having fun. And so did I.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical






January 13, 2010

Bruckner: 8th symphony
(Atma Classique)
****

Everything in Bruckner’s 90-minute eighth symphony is determined by the opening phrase – structure, mood, substance and relevance. Too much pomp at the outset strips the work of surprise. Too restrained an approach negates its religious passion. I have heard many conductors stumble in the Eighth, searching for a happy medium. The French-Canadian Yannick Nézet-Séguin seems to know where he is going.

The opening sounds as inevitable as daybreak, a statement of common certainties. What follows is impressionistic rather than descriptive, a world that opens before our ears in a myriad of details that may, or may not, be connected in a divine order. The vast adagio and the ceremonial finale, each half an hour long, offer musical resolution but few literal absolutes. Bruckner’s Eighth is a gigantic mystery, greeted by early reviewers as an overblown monstrosity. In this interpretation, it is a representation of the mystery and wonderment of nature.

There are more exhilarating recordings (Tennstedt, Barenboim) and more accomplished ones (Karajan, Harnoncourt), but I have never come across a more imposing Bruckner Eighth from a conductor in his 30s and an orchestra, the Métropolitain of Montreal, of low international profile. What I find so appealing about this combination is that it delivers Bruckner free of ego frills and excessive commentary. Yannick told me recently he expects to do it better when he’s 70, but this will do nicely for a few decades.

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Three war hero CDs

Karl Amadeus Hartmann: Chamber music
(Cybele)
****

Hartmann was a rare musical resistant to Nazism. Suppressing his own works during the Third Reich, he physically guided fugitives over the mountain passes to Italy. After 1945, he founded a landmark Musica Viva series in Munich to educate Germans in modern music. This collection of performances by the Doelen Quartet and other Dutch musicians, is augmented by interviews (in German) with Hartmann, his wife and son. Although best known for big symphonies, Hartmann’s two string quartets, written either side of the war, are intensely expressive  and his chamber concerto for clarinet, string quartet and string orchestra is quite unexpectedly exuberant, given that it was written in 1935 in the heart of darkness descended.

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Luigi Dallapiccola: Orchestral works 2
(Chandos)
****

Forced into hiding under Mussolini, Dallapiccola developed a lyrical twelve-tone style in his one-act opera, The Prisoner. On this disc, a half-hour Partita occupies a modernist middle ground with some rambunctious orchestral effects. The 1960 Dialoghi for cello and orchestra suffers from an excess of Webernian fragmentation. More attractive are Quattro Liriche di Antonio Machado, delicately sung by Gillian Keith, backed by Gianandrea Noseda and the BBC Philharmonic.

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Miecyslaw Weinberg: violin sonatas 4 & 5
(CPO)
***

Weinberg fled the Nazis in Warsaw, only to be jailed by Stalin. Strongly influenced by his close friend Shostakovich, his chamber style is close and confidential, a rustle of dangerous secrets. This live premiere recording, by Stefan and Andreas Karpal, is disrupted by heavy breathing on a misplaced microphone – a pity, since the music is urgent and compelling.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical






January 5, 2010

James MacMillan: The Sacrifice
(Chandos)
****

The second opera by Scotland’s most successful composer draws on a misty Welsh myth in which a general, eager to end a civil war, marries his daughter, Sian, to the other side’s leader. This does not go down well with his deputy, Evan, who wants her for himself.

Seven years later, as Sian’s son becomes heir apparent, Evan begs her to elope with him. Sian resists, and the climax is a political bloodbath in the tradition of Macbeth and King Lear. Cue for one of MacMillan’s trademark requiems.

Staged by Welsh National Opera in 2007, The Sacrifice has two outstanding characters – the unyielding Sian and the orchestra, which gets many of the best lines. MacMillan, leaving his minimalist origins far behind, relieves an often prosaic text with lavish instrumental interludes, the last of which is a wrenching lament as Sian confronts the morbid consequences of her forced decisions.

Sian is sung by the effulgent Scottish soprano Lisa Milne with such conviction that one could hardly imagine anyone else in the role. Christopher Purves is her father, Peter Hoare her husband and Leigh Melrose her rejected lover.  Anthony Negus conducts. The Sacrifice needs to be seen rather than heard but, until your local opera house gets reckless, this Chandos recording is vivid and strong.

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Two French Chopin CDs

Alain Planès: Chopin chez Pleyel
(Harmonia Mundi)
*****

A Paris recital given by Frederic Chopin on 26 April 1841 and reviewed by no less than authority than Franz Liszt is repeated here on a period piano by one of the most thoughtful French interpreters. Opening with the Andante spianato, Planès takes us through a finely-balanced programme of heart tweakers and brain teasers – not a Polonaise in sight. The Pleyel piano inhibits lushness but the Nocturnes are no less tender for being hit by thinner hammers. Chopin comes alive in your room.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com



Alexandre Tharaud: Chopin, journal intime
(Virgin)
****

Tharaud offers a tour of the Chopin pieces that have meant most in his life. Why this should matter to anyone outside his family is unexplained, but the playing, on a modern Steinway, is arresting. Two mazurkas are stripped of nationalist subtext and the posthumous nocturne is given a performance of stunning and seductive introspection. Even the little Ecossasies acquire profundity under Tharaud’s probing hands. The benchmark for Chopin performance this year has been set high.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com






December 23, 2009

Ligeti: string quartets
(Naxos)
****

György Ligeti used to call his first quartet ‘Bartók’s 7th’ and for many years withheld it from performance. Written under Communism in 1954, it feigns conformity to the anti-modernist line while subtly mocking the constraints with hinted astringencies. Its morbid waltz movement is a cross between Ravel’s macabre dance and Schoenberg’s laconic settings of Johann Strauss, a blend of wit and aspiration. More playful than Bartók ever was, the young Ligeti’s self-deprecation hints at the wicked games he would play once he was free to do so.

The second quartet, dated 1968, opens with nocturnal Bartók rustlings but its language is aphoristic, precise, fragmented and, in its particular way, beautiful as a Beckett play. A modern masterpiece, its unexpected conjunctions startle and intrigue the ear even on third hearing. The filler in this disc is a rarity – a 1950 Andante and Allegretto drawn from the Janacek sound world.

There are more polished Ligeti recordings on prime labels from the LaSalle and Hagen quartets, but the energetic, Boston-originated Parker Quartet play with deep sympathy for Ligeti’s different styles, missing only the savage grin of his caustic humour. I really want to hear this group live.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com


 

Three seasonal CDs to try

Into this world this day did come
(Delphian)
****

The 2009 Christmas stocking has been thin on winners, but I cannot let the season pass without a nod to a stunning conflation of carols new and medieval from the Choir of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. The top three tracks by Diana Burrell, Judith Bingham and Stuart Macrae, vigorous and inventive, refute the clichéd Dawkins doctrine that religion is beyond self-renewal. Theirs is an unflinching modern sound with an irresistible spiritual dimension.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com



Robert White: Hymns, psalms and lamentations
(Signum)
***

A 1574 victim of the plague in Westminster, White is a bit-player in the liturgical shifts of his turbulent century. A high church Anglican, his translucent coolness makes the most of cathedral acoustics. Gabriel Crouch directs the London group, Gallicantus.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com





Ave Maris Stella
(LCS Hi-res)
***

Antwerp trained, the Dublin organist Gerard Gillen gives a nimble, idiomatic reading of two Flemish masters, Flor Peeters and Cesar Franck. St Mary’s Pro Cathedral has a late-romantic organ that eschews snorts and grunts and delivers a lovely singing line. A one-shot cure for committed organ phobics.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical






December 16, 2009

Chopin recital: Janina Fialkowska
(ATMA Classique)
****

Before Chopin Year floods us with tinklers in micro-skirts and Lang Lang duetting with Richard Clayderman, wrap your ears around the real thing. Janina Fialkowska, a Candadian, ran off with the first Artur Rubinstein competition in 1974 and won a devoted following for her warm and intimate tone, so unlike the bangers and crashers of the competition circuit. A tumour in her left arm forced a career break early in the present decade, but she’s back now and more characterful than ever.

Her technique is fearless. Fialkowska takes the Grande valse brillante in F major as if it were the Moonlight sonata opening and she flickers through the waltzes, mazurkas and polonaises with the dazzle of a disco dancer. I particularly like her colour differentiations within the hackneyed old Minute Waltz, which I never expected to listen to again with pleasure.

Best of all is the B major nocturne, which she plays conversationally without extremes of quietude and pointless rubato pauses. This is high-class Chopin playing, deeply felt and demonstrably authentic. Fialkowska writes the booklet notes herself, with much the same directness, explaining her choices and contrasts in a language accessible to all. The sound, from a studio in Quebec, is as good as it gets.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com


 

Three debuts to try

Nemanja Radulovic: Devil’s trills
(4@llclassics/Decca)
****

The 23 year-old Parisian Serb is aiming for the Nigel Kennedy slot, projecting a rebellious hairstyle and an immediate stage presence. His sound on debut is too in-your-face for comfort, but there is no ignoring the individuality of tone or the edge of ambition. Accompanied by string quartet in Kreisler-like encores, he exudes Balkanic sulphur and disturbs all the horses in the high street. As well as Tartini, he plays Paganini, Wieniawski, Vitali, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Sarasate and Kreisler.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com



Andreas Brantelid: Chopin cello music
(EMI)
***

The Danish cellist got his break at 14 in the Elgar concerto and is now launched, at 22, on the world circuit. His tone is reticent and meditative; I hope he’s showier on stage. His partners in the Chopin cello sonata and piano trio are Marianna Shirinyan (piano) and Vilde Frang (violin), who is going to be very big, indeed.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com





Vilde Frang: Sibelius, Prokofiev concertos
(EMI)
****

A Norwegian protégée of Anne-Sophie Mutter, 22 years old, Frang opens Sibelius with the iciest wisp of evanescent sound, announcing a major new force on the strings front. Muscular and confident, she has something of the Mutter bravura but with a sympathetic wink. In the first Prokofiev concerto she substitutes flash virtuosity for an in- your-ear whisper. In Sibelius, she is fire on ice. Frang is my hot tip for 2010. Thomas Sondergard conducts the WDR Cologne orchestra, a crack band.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com







December 8, 2009

Shostakovich and Comrades, volume 1
(Divine Art)
****

The Scottish pianist Murray McLachlan has been on the road these past three years with a fascinating recital of Soviet-era keyboard music. The centre point is Dmitri Shostakovich, who emits more chord-cluster violence in his 1926 first sonata than he will ever dare again. The 1942 second sonata is sombre and subdued, written just after the Leningrad siege in memory of his piano teacher, Leonid Nikolaev. McLachlan captures the contrast to idiomatic perfection, conveying suppressed, inverted suffering in the moderato finale of the later sonata.

The poignancy is deepened by the contemporary works of other composers. A 1945 third sonata by Dmitri Kabalevsky wears a forced smile and sounds painfully trivial beside the master’s hand-wrung truths. Nikolai Miaskovsky’s Song and Rhapsody of 1942 is steeped in pre-Revolutionary nostalgia, lost in salon reveries. A solo transcription of part of the 1963 first piano concerto by Rodion Schchedrin eases its way out the post-Stalin thaw with some of the abrasive chords of early Shostakovich, turned vulgar in the ceaseless deprivations of Soviet life. Schchedrin’s is a rich, comic piece, Gogolian in its self-mockery.

An unexpected insertion is a tribute to DSCH – the Shostakovich musical mnemonic – by the Russophile Scot, Ronald Stevenson. This short extract from Stevenson’s 80-minute Passacaglia on DSCH is no more than a taster, grey as a winter’s day, and perhaps long enough. McLachlan is wonderfully atmospheric throughout. I am eager to hear his next compilation.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com


 

Three more Russian piano releases 

Rachmaninov 4th concerto, Medtner 2nd
(Bis)
***

The two composers were good friends. Medtner’s second concerto of 1926 sounds like sub-prime Rachmaninov, as does Rachmaninov’s fourth of the same year. Both were written in exile and neither has a convincing centre. Yevgeny Sudbin makes an even-handed case for each work, alternately wistful and forceful. The North Carolina Symphony under conductor Grant Llewellyn are far less subtle.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com



Rachmaninov, Medtner, Prokofiev, Gubaidulina sonatas
(Ambroisie)
***

An intelligent set of contrasts by the Russian pianist Anna Vinnitskaya. Slightly under-powered in Rachmaninov’s second and indeterminate in Prokofiev’s seventh, she gives a heart-tugging account of Medtner’s 1918 Sonata Reminiscenza ad has revelations to share in Gubaidulina’s 1962 Chaconne. The Medtner has gone straight to my i-Pod.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com





Rachmaninov, Grieg, cello sonatas
(Signum)
***

From the same period as his 2nd piano concerto, Rachmaninov’s sonata for cello and piano dips with startling suddenness from playful to darkness. Jamie Walton and Daniel Grimwood find more lightness here than most Russians; they are just as summery and enjoyable in the Grieg.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com







December 2, 2009

Richard Strauss: German Motet
(Naive)
*****

Totally out of a blue sleeve, sung by the Latvian radio choir with the French conductor Laurence Equilbey, comes a luminous collection of Strauss vocal works, unfamiliar to my ears and unrelated to anything he was writing at the time. The German motet, premiered December 1913 in Berlin and scored in 20 parts – 16 choirs and four soloists – is second in complexity only to Tallis’s Spem in Aulium.

There are passing soprano affinities to the recent Rosenkavalier but nothing by way of baroque affectation or patriotic bombast, just an unleashing of choral virtuosity for the sheer delight of it. Strauss makes much play on the word Licht (light) in a text taken from Friedrich Rückert, whose poems yielded Gustav Mahler’s two great cycles. He is less concerned than Mahler with consonantal clarity, preferring a wash of sound through which the solo voices rise and fall like dolphins in an evening sea. Gorgeous.

Strauss returns to Rückert in 1935 when, sidelined by the Nazis, he writes Dream Light for male choruses in a manner morosely reminiscent of Schubert and Brahms, reaching back for roots he once shared with the now-banned Mahler. Two other songs on this revelatory disc date from 1897 when both composers were poised at the edge of their prime. As for the record sleeve, Naïve make the most beautiful covers to be found anywhere in these straitened times.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical


 

Two more Strauss records and an Elliott Carter

Alpine Symphony
(Profil Medien)
****

The best thing about listening to this monster on record is that you can leave the room when – you will – get bored. Semyon Bychkov conducts the WDR radio orchestra of Cologne in a well-constructed live performance. All the old mountain clichés come out on cue; the only shortcoming is the band, which is never quite Berlin quality in brass and lower strings. Karajan still rules the roost in this rep.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical



Symphonia Domestica, Metamorphosen
(Naxos)
**

The Weimar Staatskapelle is not nimble enough for Strauss’s quick turns and the conductor, Antoni Wit, eschews risk. The strings, exposed in Metamorphosen, lack the morose and scary rumblings of Vienna, Munich or Berlin.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com





Elliott Carter: Choral works
(Hänssler)
***

Will Carter last the test of time? These songs, dating from the 1930s and 1940s, were written for the Harvard Glee Club in an idiom less advanced than Ives. The Stuttgart Vocal Ensemble make light work of them. Let’s Be Gay for female chorus and two pianos might get an occasional laconic airing in epochs to come.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com







November 26, 2009

Bryn Terfel: Bad Boys
(DG)
**

The latest Terfel product – to call it a recital of music insults both commerce and art – casts the Welsh baritone as all the best-known nasties on stage. He excels in the obvious roles – Mephistopheles in both the Gounod and Boito operas, jailer Pizarro in Beethoven’s Fidelio and, best of all, Commendatore Leporello in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. These acts are one-dimensional. Terfel does one-dimensional with brio.

He is appropriately cynical as Sportin Life from Porgy and Bess and rather charming in a rotter kind of way as Ruddigore in the Gilbert and Sullivan opera.

Where the product turns sticky is with those characters that require subtlety and shading to bring out the menace. Mack the Knife is not a credible mugger in Terfel’s bluff interpretation and Iago in Verdi’s Otello demands more foresight. Least effective is Sweeney Todd, a character who is meant to arouse more sympathy than terror in Somndheim’s master-musical. Terfel sings him as a stock villain, straight off the police line-up, with Anne-Sofie von Otter wittering as Mrs Lovett in the background. Paul Daniel conducts the Swedish radio orchestra and choir. This is superstore product, artless as it comes.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com


 

Three more CDs to try

Martinu: chamber works
(Chandos)
****

Nearing the end of the Martinu anniversary year, he continues to be discussed as the Czech who wrote too much music for his own good. These four works are a good taster of how much energy and invention he could pack into a piece. The 1942 piano quartet has an ominous undercurrent, never overstated, with exiled yearnings. The 1947 quartet for oboe, violin, cello and piano is an original form: who else could write for that odd combo and make it work? A late duo for violin and cello, written months before his death, is the acme of intimacy. The Schubert Ensemble with George Caird (oboe) capture Martinu’s idiom to perfection.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com



Gare du Nord
(Parnas)
***

Two teenaged sisters from upstate New York, Madalyn and Cicely Parnas, give a fine, tense reading of two duos for violin and cello by Martinu, together with Paris-oriented works by Glière, Honegger and Milhaud and a new work by Brian Fennelly. Sensitive to one another, as sisters must be, they do not always differentiate the characters of these diverse composers. But those refinements should come with time. A pair to watch.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com





Alexander Tansman: chamber symphonies
(Chandos)
**

A Polish exile in Paris, Tansman adopted Stravinskian sonorities and jazz rhythms to sustain an agreeable and voluminous output, albeit one without strong personal traits. Oleg Catenai conducts the Swiss-Italian radio orchestra.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com







November 18, 2009

J C Bach: Philippe Jaroussky
(Virgin)
****

Bach’s eleventh and youngest son, Johann Christian, came to London in 1762 and lived there for the next 20 years until his death, aged 46. He cut a figure of fashion, was painted by Gainsborough and frequented all the best coffee houses. His music, too, was well received, but these were revolutionary times and his Italian-style baroque perfectionism became outmoded. Despite Mozart’s admiration, the London Bach fell between posterity’s cracks and seldom gets performed in modert times, let alone seen on stage.

This selection of arias by the French counter-tenor is, therefore, an act of excavation and advocacy, both conducted with immaculate serenity. The songs he chooses were written for castrati to perform in operas drawn from Greek and Latin literature, stuffed with artificial pathos and pastiche. Jaroussky’s trick is to sing them with an early-romantic flourish that redeems the music from the risk of stultification. The longest aria, 13 minutes from Adrianno in Siria (1765), displays Bach’s ability to command full attention on a static stage setting. There is a marvellous song from Orpheus and Euridice - who knew there was a Bach Orfeo? - and four ravishing concert arias. Jérémie Rhorer conducts Le Cercle de l’Harmonie with twinkling assurance in one of the year’s late hits.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com


 

Three vocal discs to try

To Saint Cecilia
(Naïve)
**

Great idea to combine Purcell’s Ode, Handel’s Song and Haydn’s Mass on a double-album, but Mark Minkowski’s tempi are sepulchral and the singing seldom evinces much enthusiasm. Where the two English works demand a certain lustiness from singers, what we get is precious attention for small details in the score. Lucy Crowe and Nathalie Stutzmann are the picks of the singing pack.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com



Diana Damrau: COLORaturaS
(Virgin)
**

The German soprano is right up there with the high Cs, and a good actress to boot. She gives good aria in the heavy 19th century works, less so in Stravinsky, least of all in Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, where she glitters without much gaiety. This album needed more producer guidance.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com





Patrick Hawes: Visions of England
(Signum)
*

Prince Charles’s favourite composer and a resident at Classic FM, Hawes writes music that is old before it is heard. His sonorities are pastoral and Edwardian, a pastiche of past times driven straight down the middle of the road. The Welsh soprano Elin Manahan Thomas sings without adornment or affectation and Julian Lloyd Webber plays two cello solos that sound as if he’s auditioning for film.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com







November 12, 2009

Gavin Bryars: The Church Closest to the Sea
(Delphian)
*****

If I challenged you to name ten living composers whose music will be played 50 years from now, Gavin Bryars would be among my certainties. Never heard of him? Born in Yorkshire in 1943 and best known for two stage shows with Robert Wilson, he works at the nexus of polyphony and post-minimalism, seducing the ear with deceptively simple sounds whose complexity is revealed in the aftertaste.

Epilogue from Wonderlawn (2004) opens with the kind of sound you would associate with a palm court hotel or a BBC World War Two romance, only for the interplay of strings and piano (or electric guitar) to take us into a very contemporary landscape of family dialogue and alienation. Bryars dedicated the piece to his two cellist daughters and the tension of their sorority is riveting throughout.

Eight Irish Madrigals (2004) are the very antithesis of Celtic sentimentalism and The Church Closest to the Sea (2007), evoking a 750 year-old chapel on the Firth of Forth, works jazz riffs on the double-bass against a distinctly Caledonian drone, hypnotic and insistent. Whenever I hear Bryars’ music, I want to hear more. Among today’s ten most durable composers, he’s a dead cert. I might even make this a Twitter contest.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com


 

Three vocal discs to try

Schumann Lieder
(Harmonia Mundi)
*****

The Argentine mezzo Bernarda Fink takes a pellucid trawl through some of the less-known cycles – notably the Mary Stuart songs and some poems of Friedrich Rückert who later, more famously, caught Mahler’s attention. Never forcing the tone, Fink is a superb scene-setter, achingly so in the moonlit Eichendorff set, infinitely relistenable.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com



Schubert Helipolis
(Harmonia Mundi)
**

Something goes wrong from the off. Matthias Goerne, marvellous in his Schubert sets with Helmut Deutsch, Eric Schneider and Christoph Eschenbach at the piano, switches here to Ingo Metzmacher, a prosaic player. From the opening bars, piano and voice have little to say to each other. Not one stanza is illuminated.  Ingo should stick to conducting.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com





Simon Keenlyside sings Schubert, Wolf, Fauré and Ravel
(Wigmore Hall Live)
***

What a difference Malcolm Martineau makes to this live recital, anticipating the singer’s intentions without ever dominating or overwhelming him. Keenlyside is at his most caressing in Fauré’s colourful ecologies.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com







November 3, 2009

Alfie Boe sings Love Was a Dream
(Linn Records)
***

The Lancashire tenor was, until last month, being groomed by EMI as the next crossover phenomenon and generational heartthrob.  So what’s he doing here on a small Scots label owned by a hi-end hi-fi manufacturer? Changing track, apparently. Boe says he wants to record the music where he feels most at home. The middle-road melodies of Franz Lehar, once popularised by Richard Tauber, have long fallen out of fashion even in those parts of the world where three courses of sweets are essential to any good meal.

Boe has the right voice for Lehar, skinnier than the rotund Tauber and more agile on leaps and swoops. The hits he culls from the long-running Paganini, Frederica, Land of Smiles, Giuditta and, inevitably, Merry Widow are well chosen and the English texts he sings are acceptable, if dated. They are written with an exceptional ear for singer comfort and they show the voice to best effect.

A little Lehar goes a very long way with me, and little is all you get here - just 44 minutes – with stolid backing from the orchestra of Scottish Opera. Boe may be at a career crossroads after a rather underpowered Rodolfo in ENO’s Boheme. But the voice is in excellent condition and I shall be intrigued to hear where it leads him next.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com


 

Three more vocal CDs

Joyce DiDonato: Colbran the Muse
(Virgin)
****

First Cecilia Bartoli impersonates the early 19th century Spanish diva Malibran, now Joyce DiDonato takes on her rival Isabella Colbran, who wound up married to Rossini after a long stint as his impresario’s squeeze. In both relationships, she launched a stream of Rossini roles, from Armida to Zelmira.

The American mezzo packs more power than Bartoli and – dare I say it? – more personality. D’Amor al dolce impero from Armida has wit and twinkle at both ends of the range and her trill runs in Tanti affetti from La Donna del Lago are a joy. Her tone is unfailingly clean and the accompaniment from Rome’s Santa Cecilia orchestra and chorus, conducted by Eduardo Müller, is often stunning. There is a major talent here on the make, and no mistake.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com



Renée Fleming: Verismo
(Decca)
**

The world divides between those who regard Ms Fleming as America’s greatest living diva and those who find her singing mannered and expressionless. I belong to the second camp and nothing on this fin-de-siècle compilation touches my stubborn heart. Next, please.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com





Vivica Genaux: Vivaldi pyrotechnics
(Virgin)
***

I shall never willingly sit through an opera by Antonio Vivaldi, so I am grateful to the fizzy French mezzo for selecting a jolly highlights disc. My faves are a pair of arias from La fida ninfa but there is much else on this cull that warrants a second hearing. Genaux’s virtuosity is always tasteful and Fabio Biondi’s accompaniment with Europa Galante is appropriately lithe.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com







October 21, 2009

Ravel: suites
(EMI)
****

Yannick Nézet-Séguin has taken over Valery Gergiev’s rostrum in Rotterdam and is working as number two conductor with the London Philharmonic. Friends in the US keep asking whether he’s as good as I have made out. Here, on his first major-label release, I feel no need to eat any past paeans of praise.

A French-Canadian, Nézet-Séguin cut his record teeth on Bruckner with a seductive lyricism reminiscent of his Italian mentor, Carlo Maria-Giulini. In Ravel, he is more obviously on home turf. The first effect to catch the ear is the shimmer he gets out of the Rotterdam Philharmonic in the second suite of Daphnis et Chloé. The love saga sounds, for once, utterly credible and incredibly beautiful.

Mother Goose is visualised before our closed eyes. In Valses nobles et sentimentales, the conductor lets his players off the leash for some window-rattling sonorities. La Valse is appropriately ghostly, restrained in the opening phrases but slowly building an image of a Vienna that is dancing towards self-destruction. At the risk of stamping Nézet-Séguin with false role models, I haven’t heard such sleek and controlled Ravel since Abbado in the 1970s. This is a conductor of very high promise indeed.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com


 

Three Schubert CDs to try

String quintet, Death & the Maiden &c
(Virgin)
****

How dangerous for the young Belcea Quartet to attempt, with Valentin Erben, the great posthumous five-hander that has been every festival’s top seller since Pau Casals established Prades. And how close they come to ranking with the ever-greats. The opening is a mite prosaic and the adagio too muscular, but the scherzo is right on the edge of the cliff and the allegretto finale can hardly be better sprung. Young, maybe, but ready to drink. The D887 late quartet has magnificent tension, while Death and the Maiden conveys furious protest against cruel fate.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com



Works for cello and piano
(Onyx)
***

Peter Wispelwey, playing gut strings and partnered on fortepiano by Paolo Giacometti, does his best to convince us that the Arpeggione sonata sounds better on instruments that were already being superseded in Schubert’s time. It doesn’t. Nor do the duo and fantasy for these two instruments. Still, the playing is virile and you have to admire the enterprise.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com





Moments musicaux, Impromptus
(Virgin)
**

David Fray, French son-in-law of Riccardo Muti, is an impressive pianist in Bach and Boulez. Schubert he doesn’t quite get. The singing tone is missing and his rendition comes over fussy and declamatory. The second impromptu in E-flat glitters cleverly, but not enough to convince us of its coherence. What’s missing from his makeup is an understanding of romantic gesture. Muti could teach him a thing or two.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com







October 13, 2009

Mahler: 5th symphony
(Oehms Classics)
****

None of Mahler’s symphonies was premiered in Vienna, where the composer was director of the opera house. Instead, he touted them all over Germany: to Berlin, Krefeld, Munich and, in 1904, to Cologne, where the Gürzenich orchestra gave the first performance of his fifth symphony, to an uncomprehending audience.

That same orchestra plays the symphony here under Markus Stenz in an interpretation full of character and tradition. The sound is less sleek than the international norm and there is a lack of threat in the opening march. But the rustic tread of the first movement richly compensates for the absence of sheen, and the interpretation is never less than intriguing. Stenz is full of surprises. He speeds up the stormy second movement, catches breath in the scherzo and delivers one of the sprightliest modern readings of the ambivalent Adagietto – more love letter than funeral ode. The finale reverts to opening principles and the effect overall feels as satisfying as fairtrade coffee. You're not just waking up here, you're saving the planet. This is Mahler from source.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com


Mahler: 8th symphony
(Avie)
**

Michael Tilson Thomas has achieved Mahler wonders in San Francisco over the past eight years, but this is not one of them. The Eighth is almost unworkable on record, involving around 1,000 musicians. The test of any performance is its quietude. In the orchestral interlude, between its two unequal parts, MTT is so driven by previous excess that emotion and contemplation go missing and the listener just feels stressed.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com



Mahler: 9th symphony
(Tudor)
***

Jonathan Nott and the Bamberg Symphony near the end of their cycle with a convincing Ninth, lacking only the extremes of mortal clarity. Nott approaches Mahler with a modernist detachment in a traditional sonority, a cross between Boulez and Bruon Walter. The blend does not quite jell but there are plenty of interesting passages, and much beauty in the second movement.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com





Mahler: 9th symphony
(Bis)
*

This is a farewell concert in Stockholm by Alan Gilbert, new chief conductor of the New York Philharmonic. The tempi are stolid, the playing uncompetitive and the enlightenment absent. The opening movement bogs down in confusion before two minutes are up and the finale is numbingly banal. What has the conductor brought to this party other than a nice suit? What does he do that a metronome cannot match? New York be warned: this is your future.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com







October 7, 2009

Paganini: 24 Caprices
(Onyx/ECM)
**/****

The diabolical difficulty of these pieces is well known. The composer was accused of being in league with the devil, so unearthly was his dexterity and so menacing his aura. Although the Caprices are used on the whole privately as practice pieces by would-be virtuosi, when played in performance they require an other-worldliness, something of the night, to convince us of their musical validity.

James Ehnes, a Juilliard-trained Canadian soloist, has technique to spare for these works, which he recorded once before at the defunct Telarc. Nothing in Paganini’s music seems to stretch him and he contributes little by way of personality or wit. Competent to a fault and thoughtful in his written notes, he achieves complete mastery of the Caprices without conveying any strong reason for hearing them.

> Listen: No. 1 in E major: Andante (Naxos Music Library, available to La SCENA Card members)

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical

ZehetmairThomas Zehetmair, the German violinist-conductor, adds a distinctive interpretation, treating the set as a fluctuant mood cycle – almost an exercise in psycho-dynamics. Without attempting to analyse the elusive Paganini, he manages to suggest both the magic of his stage presence and the sulphurous aspects of his character. Produced by the veteran Manfred Eicher on ECM, Zehetmair manages to give even the hackneyed 24th Caprice - variegated by everyone from Brahms and Rachmaninov to Joe Stump and Andrew Lloyd Webber – a flush of original feeling. Along with Michael Rabin (EMI) and Heifetz himself (RCA), this is diabolically as good as it gets.

>Buy this CD at Amazon.com

 

Two Korngolds and a piun-up violinist

Korngold violin concerto
(Virgin/Orchid)
***/****

Like London buses, you can wait years for a Korngold concerto and then four turn up in a row. Nikolai Znaider (RCA) was sulky and Philippe Quint (Naxos) I haven’t heard, but both Renaud Capucon on Virgin and Matthew Trusler on Orchid bring fresh qualities to the work and good reason to reconsider its virtues. Capucon pitches the opening sweetness to perfection and underplays the finale’s recycled movie themes. Trusler takes a more nostalgic route, finding exquisite love and pain in Korngold’s yearnings for a vanished Vienna.

Both are thoughtful, distinctive and engagingly personal. Capucon is disadvantaged by his paring – a solid account of the Beethoven concerto, conducted in Rotterdam by Yannick Nezet-Seguin – while Trusler in Dusseldorf (cond. Yasuo Shinozaki) offers the stunning and apt concerto by another film composer, Miklos Rozsa, as well two prime Heifetz encores. In Korngold, though, I cannot choose one over the other: I’m keeping them both.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical

> Listen: Trusler (Naxos Music Library, available to La SCENA Card members)



Nicola Benedetti: Fantasie
(DG)
*

The sultry Scottish violinist has a million-pound contract with Deutsche Grammophon, which used to be a distinctive classical label. The absurdity of this arrangement is demonstrated in showpieces by Sarasate, Vaughan Williams, Saint-Saens and others, which she plays very slowly and without a trace of character. The record is heavily advertised and a seasonal best-seller. It leaves a sour aftersound.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical

>Buy this CD at Amazon







September 29, 2009

Kim Kashkashian: Neharot
(ECM)
*****

Expectations of harmony are never high in contemporary music from the Middle East but this confection by the Boston-based violist is an ear-gripper. Kashkashian, an American of Armenian extraction, plays works by two Israelis, Betty Olivero and Eitan Steinberg, and by the Beirut-born Armenian, Tigran Mansurian (who contributes a piano solo).

Olivero’s title piece plays mournful games on the Hebrew word for rivers, an allusion to the floods of tears shed by women in the region’s conflicts. Scored for viola, accordion, percussion, two string ensembles and two voices on tape, it is meditative and consolatory, embracing the sorrows of all sides as a precondition to a tentative harmony.

Mansurian’s music starts slow and gets slower, seeking tranquillity in a furnace of unresolved emotions against the kaleidoscopic colours of a Mediterranean sunset. Steinberg’s Rava Deravin for viola and string quartet – a most unusual configuration – contemplates a chasidic melody on a Sabbath hymn by the Safed kabbalist Ari Zal. (Madonna will never get it.)

Kashkashian’s playing is introspective to the point of transcendence. The notes rise like letters off a burning page and the heart turns upwards to heaven. Inspiration, that much-abused critical term, is the driving force.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical


Three chamber music CDs to try

Brahms: String quartet #1, piano quartet
(Virgin)
****

Aimez-vous Brahms? The Quator Ebène, based in Paris, give a contemporary twist to Francoise Sagan’s title. Light as soufflé chefs, they take openings at a daring clip, blowing off dust in pursuit of a natural pace. Brahms would have hated their vivacity (not to mention their Frenchness); Akiko Yamamoto is the quintet's pianist.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical



The Bohemian Album
(Channel Classics)
***

The Amsterdam Sinfonietta (dir. Candida Thompson) play taut transcriptions of 1920s string quartets by Pavel Haas and Erwin Schulhoff, both furrowing between Janacek’s sound world and Alois Haba’s. Tough to play but a tonic for the ears. Dvorak’s serenade for strings comes off slushy by comparison.

>Buy this CD at Presto Classical





Ephyra Trio plays Piazzolla
(Forge Records)
****

A London restaurant-based classical label launches with a lovely set of tangos, transcribed for soprano saxophone, cello and piano, the last played by owner Adam Caird. The producer is Claudio Abbado's studio partner, Chris Alder, and the style is far removed from dinnertime ambience. This is classical cool, audio chic, a musical menu to improve the autumnal mood.

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September 23, 2009

Mendelssohn Discoveries