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1673533647 CHSA5291

Chandos – John Wilson & Sinfonia of London – Delius, Elgar, Howells, Vaughan Williams

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3 of 5 stars

Vaughan Williams
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis

Howells
Concerto for String Orchestra

Delius, arr. Fenby
Late Swallows

Elgar
Introduction and Allegro, Op.47

Sinfonia of London
John Wilson

Recorded at the Church of St Augustine, Kilburn, London on 5 January 2022 (Late Swallows) & 23 and 24 August 2021 (other works)


Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: January 2023
CD No: CHANDOS CHSA 5291 [SACD]
Duration: 66 minutes

 

 

The flood of new releases from this source shows no sign of abating. And given the name adopted by John Wilson’s own revived ensemble, not to mention his well-known reverence for Sir John Barbirolli’s legendary HMV LP of English String Music, this might be the most audacious of them all. As with the team’s previous Chandos anthology of “English Music for Strings”, the recorded sound enhances performances at once sumptuous and forensic, captured by Ralph Couzens. The producer is Brian Pidgeon.

The collection is bookended by classics indelibly associated with Barbirolli. In Vaughan Williams’s ubiquitous Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis the sonic terracing of the three string groups is remarkably acute, the echoing ‘consort of viols’ effect brought off splendidly. Later however the music presses forward more boldly, more insistently than some will like. The ebbing away of the central climax is idiosyncratic too, articulation and dynamic levels oh-so precisely calibrated. Both Terence Davies in Benediction and Oliver Hermanus in Living recently plundered this miraculous score to give their movies a suitably uplifting denouement. No matter. As the Sinfonia of London demonstrates, it will most certainly survive.

Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, placed last in the sequence, has its fair share of surprises. The manner is even more fiercely ‘objective’, at once hyper-virtuosic and sometimes (deliberately) unrefined as if evoking a bracing walk in the open countryside. Towards the end, as the Welsh theme is about to reappear in full splendour, Wilson’s very rhetorical pause might seem to work against emotional logic. Then again, the brilliance of the (cleanly enunciated and hence by no means over-hasty) fugal section banishes any vestige of sloppiness.

Between these formidable peaks of indigenous culture, Eric Fenby’s fleshing out of the slow movement of Delius’s String Quartet is lither than usual, refusing to get bogged down in chromatic treacle; Barbirolli’s own more affectionate take is nearly two minutes longer. Is this beautifully turned rendition somehow unidiomatic? The reminiscence of Parsifal near the close is very obvious. Listeners may have their own views.

Perhaps the truly indispensable item here is the Howells Concerto where Wilson pulls the music in a quite different direction from its previous Chandos recording. The new account is edgy and driven, the expression sufficiently a product of the 1930s to make Richard Hickox, working in the 1990s, sound merely limp. The outer movements acquire a harder edge under Wilson than under Sir Adrian Boult in Abbey Road, 1973. Meanwhile fans of Tippett’s ebullient Concerto for Double String Orchestra, inclined to marvel at its splendid isolation, will perhaps discover a plausible precursor. The eloquent central ‘Quasi lento’ does not dawdle but has all the sensitivity it needs, an elegiac piece associated with the deaths of Elgar and of Howells’s own son. How wonderfully played it is here, not at all forced! Or is it just that the music is less familiar?With essentially chronological accompanying notes by Andrew Burn, helpful and thorough, this brilliant disc merits a strong recommendation even if reactions will vary. I’m in two minds myself.

Photo: Hyperion Records

Martyn Brabbins & BBC Symphony Orchestra record VaughanWilliams 6 & 8 for Hyperion

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4 of 5 stars

Vaughan Williams
Symphony No.6 in E-minor
Three English Folk Songs (1912)
Symphony No.8 in D-minor
England, my England (1941)

Roderick Williams (baritone)
BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Martyn Brabbins

Recorded at Watford Colosseum on 5 November 2019 (vocal works) and 21 & 22 September 2021

 


Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: November 2022
CD No: HYPERION CDA68396
Duration: 74 minutes

 

 

Two years ago I was much taken with Martyn Brabbins’s Fifth, perhaps the finest release yet in an ongoing Vaughan Williams cycle whose completion was put on hold during the pandemic. Music, interpretation, sound recording – everything came together even if, as I remarked at the time, Brabbins’s Vaughan Williams does tend to speak with a quiet voice. “Need that be a bad thing in these frenzied times? One hopes not!” That was then and this is now for although Hyperion’s latest instalment has been greeted with positive notices these luminous, elegant, dignified performances are scarcely the be-all and end-all.

It’s not as if there is only one way to bring off the extraordinary Sixth. Responding to the observations of Vaughan Williams himself, a surprisingly interventionist presence during recording sessions, Sir Adrian Boult was prepared for quite radical readjustments, making still more of that temporary blossoming near the end of the first movement in 1967 for HMV where once there had been little more than a motivic sleight of hand. The rabid urgency and restricted sonics of Boult’s first thoughts on shellac could scarcely be further from Brabbins’s unhurried poise as captured in wonderfully natural, slightly recessed sound. The producer is Andrew Keener, the sound engineer Simon Eadon (not quite what it says in the supporting documentation of which more anon). There is much to delight old VW hands in the clarification of previously unsuspected detail but, for me, the extremism of the piece is undersold, its raw nerves anesthetized. Thus when the argument alights on that ‘big tune’ the result is neither one thing nor the other. The second movement is impressive chiefly because the sound engineering conveys real depth of perspective with properly resonant bass frequencies, thunderous climaxes looming out of the shadows. The Scherzo is properly malign. Much of Antonio Pappano’s pacing is similar on a recent LSO Live disc made on the other side of the COVID hiatus in the uglifying acoustic of the Barbican Hall. Assisted by the band’s greater weight of sonority and perhaps even the cruder sonics, Pappano focuses the drama in a way much likelier to convince those unfamiliar with the work. Brabbins is quite measured in the Finale, every dynamic acutely observed, but its hushed intensity is more effectively conveyed at Pappano’s marginally slower tempo, to say nothing of Boult’s somnambulism in 1953 for Decca.

Few if any complaints about the Eighth except that Brabbins leaves the humour of the invention to speak for itself, putting me in mind of Mark Wigglesworth’s po-faced way with Shostakovich, Both can impress nevertheless and in this instance it helps that the various gongs and spiels of the Finale have never been so audible, the texture always transparent. The ‘Cavatina’ movement is most beautifully played too.

As throughout the cycle, the disc’s attractiveness for aficionados will be boosted by the inclusion of genuine rarities in lieu of more conventional makeweights. That said, non-cultists wedded to physical format are less likely to welcome the intrusive presence of three undistinguished folk-song settings for chorus and orchestra (probably dating from 1912). Small wonder the composer left ‘Tarry Trowsers’, ‘The Carter’ and ‘Ward the Pirate’ in a drawer. These four-square offerings are plonked between the main works so you’ll need a remote. Better is the ‘patriotic’ BBC commission setting W. E. Henley’s ‘England, my England’. Superficially Elgarian and not quite what you’d expect from a Left-leaning internationalist, it nonetheless has the spark of ‘real’ VW. Music and Letters in January 1942 drew attention to the “disposition and spacing of parts… transform[ing] the known into the arrestingly new.” For some reason this vintage morale-booster follows the Eighth without adequate pause. Roderick Williams, his diction as impressive as ever, joins the BBC Symphony Chorus and the BBCSO.

A curiously balanced collection then which Robert Matthew-Walker’s typically thoughtful booklet note attempts gallantly to bring together. He comes up with his own take on the Eighth, relating it to an indigenous fantastical vein linking A Midsummer Night’s DreamAlice in Wonderland and the works of J. R. R. Tolkein. Regrettable then that his penultimate sentence on ‘England, my England’ appears to go along with the exceptionalist delusion that Britain ‘stood alone’ at the time Vaughan Williams completed it. Even discounting all those Polish airmen and the Anglo-Soviet agreement of July 1941, we seem to have forgotten the participation of the British empire and its commonwealth. ‘This was their finest hour.’ Hyperion’s art work is unrelated but not inapposite and the booklet is only difficult to read because so much is packed in to it, including full texts, orchestra personnel, artist bios and photographs.

Photo: www.europadisc.co.uk

London Philharmonic releases Tippett’s The Midsummer Marriage conducted by Edward Gardner.

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4 of 5 stars

Tippett
The Midsummer Marriage – Opera in three Acts to a libretto by the composer

Mark – Robert Murray
Jenifer – Rachel Nicholls
King Fisher – Ashley Riches
Bella – Jennifer France
Jack – Toby Spence
Sosostris – Claire Barnett-Jones
She-Ancient – Susan Bickley
He-Ancient – Joshua Bloom

London Philharmonic Choir
English National Opera Chorus
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Edward Gardner

Recorded live by BBC Radio 3 on 25 September 2021 at the Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall 


Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: September 2022
CD No: LPO-0124 [3 CDs]
Duration: 2 hours 38 minutes

It was Edward Gardner’s daring idea to open his London Philharmonic tenure with a concert performance of Tippett’s magnum opus and by and large the decision has paid off. Notwithstanding the interventions of COVID, some unintended changes of cast and remedial choral stiffening, the performance was well received in the hall on the night, in the press, and now, one year later, on disc.

Which is not to claim any stupendous revelations. The crucial advance on 1955’s original run of performances under John Pritchard, preserved on a variety of bootlegs by virtue of the participation of the young Joan Sutherland as Jenifer, came in 1968 with Colin Davis’s Covent Garden revival and the associated studio recording (1970). This was last sighted on two Lyrita CDs [SRCD2217]. David Atherton’s 1980s Thames TV broadcast with Philip Langridge, David Wilson-Johnson et al has not resurfaced so far as I am aware. The LPO set involves three sound carriers which makes for a sensible division of the action while necessitating a hefty price tag. You do get a heartfelt essay from the conductor himself, notes by Oliver Soden and a full libretto, the supposed deficiencies of which continue to provoke column inches. Time will tell whether Britten’s essentially repressive realism retains its lead in the world’s opera houses. The point being that Tippett’s narrative, a Jungian take on The Magic Flute (timeless but also ‘dated’ on arrival as Soden explains), serves to trigger euphoric musical invention rather than straitjacketing its every move. The orchestra is the opera’s life force. Traditional cuts do not prevent a regrettable dip in tension following the elimination of the capitalist villain of the piece. Still, Gardner’s LPO is on magnificent form, conveying a joyousness born of dark times, the vigour almost desperate. The sound is less dry, better balanced and more luminous than it was from my stalls seat.

Whether by accident or design Gardner was left with a line-up in which minor characters outshine the principals. The down-to-earth Papageno/Papagena pairing of Jack (Toby Spence) and Bella (Jennifer France) is a conspicuous triumph. Spence, for most listeners the most familiar and trusted name in the cast, is well matched with a relative newcomer, winner of the Critics’ Circle Emerging Talent Award in 2018. Now that Tippett’s well-intentioned text risks coming across as patronising, the soprano’s ‘make-up’ aria needs must be played with inverted commas, and throughout Act Two there is enough humour and irony in the relationship for it to be re-interpreted in line with the proclivities of the day. Equally strong in their limited appearances are the mysterious Ancients, incarnated by Susan Bickley and Joshua Bloom. 

The bigger parts are paler. The King Fisher of Ashley Riches and the Sosostris of Claire Barnett-Jones, both decently sung, boast no great weight of sonority, let alone the depth of character and experience projected by Raimund Herincx and Helen Watts for Davis. Not always helped by the microphone placement, Riches sounds more like Jenifer’s brother than her dangerous, big businessman father. Had Felicity Palmer been able to play the role of the clairvoyant as originally announced, the balance of the entire show would doubtless have shifted in quite another direction. As the nearest thing to a male lead Robert Murray’s Mark is again more of a cipher than Alberto Remedios for Davis, enunciating the text with impressive clarity, occasional strain and not much heft. Rachel Nicholls, a budding Wagnerian with some tendency to squalliness, does her best with the impossibilist writing for the heroine. If Murray seems timbrally too lyrical, Nicholls is perhaps not lyrical enough! Both were less audible in the hall than they are now. Perhaps it is part of the game plan that the iridescent ‘Ritual Dances’ should emerge as more central than ever. No semi-staged clumping about on this occasion to mar their impact as pure music.

How to sum up? With choral singing mostly as burnished as the orchestral playing, this is a valuable supplement to (if by no means a replacement for) the classic Covent Garden version. The composer felt it his role to provide “images of abounding, generous, exuberant beauty” for “an age of mediocrity and shattered dreams.” Take that seriously and for all its superficial dottiness The Midsummer Marriage feels more ‘relevant’ than ever against the backdrop of the Conservative Party’s Autumn Conference.

Leonard Bernstein: Candide

Bernstein

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3 of 5 stars

Candide – Operetta in two Acts to lyrics by Richard Wilbur with additional contributions by Stephen Sondheim, John Latouche, Lillian Hellman and the composer; book by Hugh Wheeler after Voltaire as adapted for the New York Philharmonic by Lonny Price with amendments for this LSO version by Garnett Bruce

Candide – Leonardo Capalbo
Cunégonde – Jane Archibald
The Old Lady – Anne Sofie von Otter
Dr. Pangloss / Narrator – Sir Thomas Allen
Governor and other roles – Thomas Atkins
Maximilian and other roles – Marcus Farnsworth
Paquette – Carmen Artaza

London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra
Marin Alsop

Recorded 8-9 December 2018 at Barbican Hall, London


Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: October 2021
CD No: LSO LIVE LSO00834 [2 SACDs]
Duration: 1 hour 57 minutes

 

 

Leonard Bernstein’s Candide contains some very fine music without convincing as operetta or musical. It has been revived theatrically for London audiences with sporadic success, most notably perhaps at the National Theatre (1999) and Menier Chocolate Factory (2013), but it may be that semi-staged renditions like the one immortalised here represent the best way to keep this unclassifiable show on the road. The trend was set by Bernstein’s own Candide project, captured live in the same hall with the same orchestra in 1989 and still available on a Deutsche Grammophon DVD along with its studio-made CD equivalent. This offered more of the score, arguably more successfully structured, than ever before. Then again, Christa Ludwig’s Old Lady apart, its operatic line-up was never likely to eclipse memories of the original, much-abbreviated 1956 cast recording with Robert Rounseville in the title role, Barbara Cook as Cunégonde and Max Adrian as Dr Pangloss. The LP acquired a dedicated cult-following long before the work itself was deemed worthy of revival.

As might be expected from one of his most faithful disciples, Marin Alsop’s musical solutions are not so different from the composer’s own. She has spoken of the show as “an exploration of optimism” yet favours comparably lugubrious tempos that risk removing the bubbles from Candide’s champagne. To be fair she also elicits a wealth of well-shaped, often unsuspected instrumental detail so that Prokofiev and Hindemith join older models in the eclectic brantub. The concluding number involving the entire company, ‘Make Our Garden Grow’, is maximally big and powerful.

The edition is different again. Based on Bernstein’s would-be definitive Candide, itself adapted from Scottish Opera’s 1988 staging on which he worked with John Mauceri and John Wells, it arrives further filtered via an evening worked up by Lonny Price for New York Philharmonic performances under Alsop in 2004 and a subsequent rewrite plus directorial retweaking by Garnett Bruce. Possibly because the tone has become more consistently genial and relaxed we lose ‘Nothing More Than This’, one of the tenor’s best (if initially discarded) lyrical numbers. Newly vanished is ‘Quiet’, the neatest tilt at 12-tone orthodoxy outside Bartók’s Second Violin Concerto. Newly present is ‘The Sheep’s Song’ – but why? It was Stephen Sondheim no less who contributed the lyrics of the Seventies’ introductory number ‘Life is Happiness Indeed’ (repurposed from the ‘Venice Gavotte’); its placement still feels odd to devotees of that classic album. Not for the first time, some of the most brilliant original lyrics have been compromised in pursuit of a narrative coherence always just out of reach.

Like Bernstein in later life Alsop opts for operatic casting. Dr Pangloss is played by Sir Thomas Allen who also acquires the lion’s share of the narrative flannel, contextual or would-be sardonic, inexplicably retained from the live event. In his mid-seventies at the time of recording his delivery is generally unforced and avuncular whether spoken or sung, not without a certain Northumbrian tinge. The veteran Adolph Green for Bernstein was altogether edgier and more acerbic. Leonardo Capalbo sings very well indeed as Candide and his diction is excellent even if his timbre is not quite right. He was an excellent Don Carlos for Grange Park Opera in 2019. It’s just hard to imagine him tackling, say, Stravinsky’s Tom Rakewell, a role famously first taken by Rounseville, though he has in fact done so! Naïve vulnerability doesn’t come easily to his heroic voice type.

Cunégonde is not your average Broadway love interest and Jane Archibald exploits her expert coloratura soprano to nail the showstopping ‘Glitter and Be Gay’. I can only report that I found herquality of sound a little mature and her vowels at times discoloured. The old problem perhaps. Once experienced in the role it is difficult to forget a singing actress’s defter mix of innocence and sophistication even when the singing is less than spot on. Grande-dame Anne Sophie von Otter was plainly cast in the hope of recapturing the spirited determination of Christa Ludwig in the Bernstein set yet laughs prove elusive. Positively funereal at first, her big number, ‘I am easily assimilated’ speeds up erratically part way through – unless this is the result of an edit? Her duet with Cunégonde, ‘We Are Women’, elegantly turned by the orchestra, is vocally effortful.

Less established vocal personalities are assigned the smaller roles. Carmen Artaza is a fetching Paquette and Marcus Farnsworth and Thomas Atkins take on multiple characters with some flair. Members of the London Symphony Chorus sound every bit as engaged as their orchestral colleagues and while not wholly natural the recording balance belies the awkward shallowness of the Barbican stage. You may find Thomas Allen’s halo of resonance too much of a good thing. Audience applause and titters are ruthlessly expunged as per LSO Live’s house style, a decision that probably makes the laboured links fall even flatter. The set does come attractively packaged in physical format: a proper cardboard box contains two SACD-encoded discs together with a generous bilingual booklet including the libretto. Worth a punt then but not necessarily the best of all possible Candides.

Prokofiev piano sonatas

Dinara Klinton plays Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Sonatas

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4 of 5 stars

Prokofiev
Piano Sonata No.1 in F-minor, Op.1
Piano Sonata No.2 in D-minor, Op.14
Piano Sonata No.3 in A-minor, Op.28
Piano Sonata No.4 in C minor, Op.29
Piano Sonata No.5 in C, Op.38/135
Piano Sonata No.6 in A, Op.82
Piano Sonata No.7 in B-flat, Op.83 (Stalingrad)
Piano Sonata No.8 in B-flat, Op.84
Piano Sonata No.9 in C, Op.103

Dinara Klinton (piano)

Recorded at Westvest Church, Schiedam, The Netherlands on 29, 30 January, 27, 28 June 2019 and 30, 31 January 2020


Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: August 2021
CD No: PIANO CLASSICS PCL10191
Duration: 170 minutes

 

 

Few bona fide keyboard titans play every Prokofiev Piano Sonata, and only a small cohort has recorded the complete cycle. Fewer still go the whole hog by including the torso of the Tenth and both the original and revised versions of the Fifth. One of the drawbacks of the present sequence is the way it rules out these options despite extending over three discs. The spacious layout allows for the works to be presented in chronological order but this has led to some confusion. The finely detailed booklet notes, alternating observations by Ateş Orga and the pianist herself, make it quite clear that we are getting Op.38/135 (1923/1952-3), the version of the Fifth with the upbeat demonstrative ending. Purchasers or downloaders may nonetheless be fooled by the back inlay which refers to Op.38 alone.

The set is presented in a clunky plastic box. The recording is very good if not quite state-of-the-art. Set against the nicely resonant concert-hall effect fabricated in a variety of venues for Boris Berman (Chandos), the sonority elicited by Pieter van Winkel’s team is that of a real piano parked in the wood-panelled nook of a real church. By contrast, Peter Donohoe (Somm), perhaps the ‘biggest’ player to have tackled these sonatas in recent years, risks sounding cramped. Both include considerably more music.

Thirty-ish, Ukraine-born and Moscow- and London-trained, Dinara Klinton has a remarkably secure technique of the kind associated with the Russian piano school, yet prefers her Prokofiev soft-grained. While the more lyrical and/or varied Sonatas suit her down to the ground, the implacable thrust of the composer’s motoric vein tends to be downplayed. There is no want of linear clarity – Klinton often exposes subsidiary routes more extrovert pianists leave unexplored – but the abrasive aspect of Prokofiev’s musical personality can seem a tad muzzled at times with speeds slower than the norm. The effect is most noticeable in the famous wartime trilogy whereas the Second and Ninth above all struck me as ideal in scale and focus. I was less sure about the Third, which arguably sags a little but the lapse into a more ‘mechanical’ motion must be deliberate: something similar happens in the development of the first movement of the Sixth. If memory serves she is even slower than Van Cliburn in its second segment, a distinctly unperky Allegretto  as she conceives it, with a seriously lyrical heart. Sviatoslav Richter imparts greater urgency there and in what remains of the piece.

Is Klinton wise to undersell the harshness of the Seventh? Mikhail Pletnev does likewise for DG in an account of the concluding Precipitato even less likely to put you in mind of tanks coming over the hill. I can only report that I missed Pollini’s super-efficiency, Argerich’s dash, and Sokolov’s incredible weight; perhaps that will always be the case. In the Eighth, Klinton is more reminiscent of Emil Gilels in 1974 – he premiered the work after all – than Daniil Trifonov in 2019. That most extreme of recent exponents kills off any sense of musical progression in his breathless sprint to the finishing line. Keyboard wizardry is never an end in itself for Klinton and she sees no need to bring out the steel in Prokofiev’s percussive writing. The Ninth brings the cycle to a very special close, the wan quality of so many performances replaced by something at once consoling, purposeful and humane. Tension matters less here than poetic shaping, and Donohoe’s breezier approach pays few dividends for all that he knows these scores from the inside having prepared a printed edition.

Klinton sums up her approach this way: “Prokofiev’s music is extremely visual. It is physically communicative. Sometimes, playing it, I feel like a ballet dancer sensing the music through motion and vibration. In later life Prokofiev took this still further. Not only can we visualise objects, we can also feel the material that they’re made of, the structure, the consistency of the fabric. His distinctively ‘orchestrated’ writing for the instrument creates a particular challenge for a performer, different weightings, voicings and colours demanding different soundscapes.”

These are engaging words even if unobtrusive beauty of sound and perfect control cannot tell us the whole story. Richter, a great admirer of Prokofiev’s music, considered Prokofiev the man positively dangerous and left us a small vignette of the musician at his worst: “One day a pupil was playing him his Third Concerto, accompanied by his teacher at a second piano, when the composer suddenly got up and grabbed the teacher by the neck, shouting: ‘Idiot! You don’t even know how to play, get out of the room!’ To a teacher! He was violent. Completely different from Shostakovich, who was for ever mumbling ‘Sorry’.”

Atmospheric as her playing almost always is, you may find yourself hankering after rougher edges, more oomph, and less waywardness than provided here.

Eloquence Tchaik Kleiber Sargent

Tchaikovsky’s Fourth & Sixth Symphonies and Violin Concerto – Erich Kleiber, Ruggiero Ricci, Malcolm Sargent [Eloquence]

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3 of 5 stars

Tchaikovsky
Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op.36
Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op.74 (Pathétique)
Violin Concerto in D, Op.35a

Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire de Paris
Erich Kleiber

Ruggiero Ricci (violin)
New Symphony Orchestra of London
Sir Malcolm Sargenta

Recorded: La Maison de la Mutualité, Paris, France, 7–9 June 1949 (Symphony No. 4), 5–7 October 1953 (Symphony No. 6); Kingsway Hall, London, UK, 26–27 January 1950 (Violin Concerto)


Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: July 2021
CD No: Eloquence 484 0373 [2 CDs]
Duration: 117 minutes

 

 

This Fourth Symphony of Tchaikovsky first appeared on a five-disc 78rpm set in 1949, but was released on LP one year later.  The Violin Concerto was also issued in both formats.  It is now possible effectively to restore 78rpm technology, and Decca’s much publicised ffrr system  was used both before and after the initial use of tape, so there is still excellent quality to be heard from the post-war years. The problem with this Fourth however is more to do with balance than overall sonic quality.  The full orchestra lacks weight, there is little impact at climaxes, and the acoustic sounds rather dry.  In Erich Kleiber’s equable reading the instruments are all there somewhere but the general quality is rather like that of an A.M. broadcast of the time.  There are moments of interest such as the quietly deliberate phrasing in hushed sections of the first movement and rhythm in the pizzicato-laden Scherzo is admirably strong although the movement fades-in rather than commences.  The finale is plain, the percussion sounds modest.

The Pathétique Symphony is another matter.  Four years later here the same venue seems more resonant making the orchestra sound more colourful, yet it is not the best of Decca’s sound. That can be found in Kleiber’s magnificent Concertgebouw recording of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony recorded only ten days earlier.  In the Tchaikovsky, Kleiber adheres to many of the old performing traditions including a very romantic approach to the Andante section of the first movement. The extraordinary close to the section where bassoon has a solo marked pppppp sounds as if is played on bass clarinet.  Another of the traditions applied here is a slowing for the last statement of the famous March – maybe a sense of grandeur is being sought but surely a sense of hysteria should be evoked.  There is insight and drama in this interpretation but this is not a revelatory.

Bearing in mind the date of the recording this, the earliest of Ricci’s three recordings of the Violin Concerto, sounds remarkably clear and well-balanced.  The orchestral contribution by the Decca’s house orchestra of the time: the New Symphony, is in absolute accord with Ricci’s interpretation – Sir Malcolm Sargent was a notably skilled accompanist,  Ricci is certainly a virtuoso, but when extremely difficult passages are encountered, he brings them off with ease; they are treated as an integral part of the concerto rather than showpieces.

This performance is more than a matter of untroubled accuracy; emotions are also portrayed.  For example the quiet restatement of a secondary theme four minutes before the end of the first movement instils a sense of loneliness emphasised further by the withdrawn nature of the accompaniment.  Sadness is thoughtfully portrayed in the Canzonetta – providing an ideal foil to the virtuosic fire of the finale. Some of the various editions of the time trim this movement but this version does not use the surprisingly short route taken by Heifetz in his contemporary (and very fine) version.

An interesting reissue, the Concerto being the star of the show.

Grondahl Legacy vol 3

The Launy Grøndahl Legacy Volume 3 – live in 1955 & 1957 [Danacord]

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4 of 5 stars

Niels Gade
Echoes of Ossian, Op.1
Agnete and the Mermaids, Op.31
In the Blue Grotto
August Enna
Overture: The Little Match Girl
Knudåge Riisager
Twelve with the Mail, Op.37 – August; October
Finn Høffding
It’s Quite True!
Hans Christian Lumbye
Dream Pictures
Fini Henriques
The Dance of the Joy of Life
Poul Schierbeck
The Tinder Box, Op.612
Peder Gram
Intrada seria, Op.34
Henning Wellejus
Freedom Overture, Op.13
Ebbe Hamerik
Variations for Orchestra over the Danish Radio Signal
Rued Langgaard
Drapa, BVN20 (At the Death of Edvard Grieg)
Walther Schrøder
Salzburg Overture
Svend S. Schultz
Overture to Thunderstorm

2Mogens Wieth (narrator)

1Else Brems (mezzo-soprano)

The Danish Radio Choir
Danish State Radio Symphony Orchestra
Launy Grøndahl

Recorded: 1950 (Gade) 1951 (Lumbye), 1955, 1957 (live performances) at Danish Broadcasting Corporation Studio 1


Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: July 2021
CD No: Danacord DACOCD 883 [2 CDs]
Duration: 134 minutes

 

 

Launy Grøndahl is here presented as a notable champion of the music of his compatriots. Recordings of music by Gade and Lumbye have been transferred from HMV Z series 78s, the remainder are from two public performances of April 1, 1955, and May 5, 1957.

Niels Gade (1817-1890) is the earliest composer represented.  His overture Echoes of Ossian is probably his best known work. It is symphonic in nature and foreshadows how he was to construct his eight symphonies.  The transfer from the HMV 78s of 1950, though lacking top frequencies, gives a reasonable representation of this fully-scored work.  Two years later, famous choreographer August Bournonville required various composers to provide music for his ballet Napoli; Gade was responsible for that of the second act entitled ‘The Blue Grotto’. The warmly orchestrated piece of that title anticipates Gade’s later romantic style.  Another transfer from 78s is Dream Pictures by Hans Christian Lumbye (who was also a contributor to Napoli) This is one of the best-known pieces by ‘The Danish Waltz King’ a tuneful tone-poem in which most of the themes are in waltz time.

Six composers are featured in the concert of 1955.  The recorded sound is more than acceptable; the acoustics of the Danish Broadcasting Company concert hall – known generally as Studio 1 – add tonal richness while also permitting clarity. 

August Enna’s Overture to The Little Match Girl is perhaps the best known of the works in this 1955 concert because Johan Hye-Knudsen’s 1937 recording was long available and often broadcast.  Dating from 1893, this is a beautiful and gentle example of the 19th-century romantic overture. The concert was Hans Christian Andersen-based and its first item was Gade’s setting of Agnete and the Mermaids for female voice and chorus with orchestra.  Else Brems sings with elegance and the booklet provides words in English – easy to follow since intercessions of the chorus are noted. 

Knudåge Riisager has fun with the twelve months of the year – based again on Andersen with his satirical tale of the Mail Coach’s monthly stop. ‘August’ is represented by a jolly Polka which subsides into Prokofiev-like harmonies, and in ‘October’ it sounds as if the horses are no longer pulling the coach but have taken to hunting.

Finn Høffding, who lived through almost every year of the 20th century, also based his Symphonic Fantasy on Andersen.  A question seems to be asked by bassoon at the start and again later on but despite the positive title: ‘It’s Quite True’ there is no comforting reply,  indeed the harmonically challenging music features agonised forcefulness.  The work is from 1940 – could it be that Nazi invasion of Denmark in April of that year influenced the anguish of the piece?

The Dance of the Joy of Life by Fini Henriques from the ballet The Little Mermaid also pays tribute to Andersen.  It is a wildly joyful piece, rather like a galop in rhythm and unrelentingly cheerful.  Surprisingly, there is applause at the end – rarely welcome on a CD but so joyful is the music that perhaps it may be forgiven. Andersen’s The Tinder Box is represented as narration set to music by Poul Schierbeck. The voice of Mogens Wieth is clear, positive and very forwardly balanced.  An English translation of the entire script is included in the accompanying booklet and since Wieth provides a different type of voice for of each character it is possible to follow the Danish words.  Not really a musical experience and I find the story uncomfortable.  It is about the soldier who gains a throne and the hand of a princess by killing a witch, the king’s councillors, the king and the queen.

The second disc of the set features six twentieth century composers from a concert given on May 5, 1957. Conductor and composer Peder Gram was active in the Danish music scene for many years and was Director of Danish Radio from 1937 until his retirement in 1951.  His brief Tone Poem Intrada Seria dates from shortly after World War 2.  Harmonies are daring, orchestration is forceful and solemnity leads to optimistic resolution.

1945 saw the liberation of Denmark from the German invaders, and 27-year-old Henning Wellejus was one of several who wrote music to commemorate the event.  Not ashamed to incorporate fragments of well-known melodies, he includes a song concerning previous Prussian occupation and Jeremiah Clarke’s Prince of Denmark’s March a quote from which  was used to boost morale during the second World War.  Wellejus gives us a modern tone poem – not as tuneful or cheerful as might have been expected but listeners will have picked up the popular musical references.

Variations for Orchestra over the Danish Radio Signal by Ebbe Hamerik will please Danish Radio listeners as the theme was used to close daily programmes.  The melody is about seven centuries old, to which skilfully orchestrated variations have been added.  Despite the title, this is a serious work starting calmly and including dramatic minor-keyed variations before returning to the simplicity of the original melody.

Langgaard’s At the Death of Edvard Grieg was written for that composer’s funeral in 1907 and revised a few years later.  This performance is possibly of the revision.  It is a suitably moving piece building to a climax halfway through, succeeded by a solemn march-like section in a rhythm similar to that found in Grieg’s own Funeral March for Rikard Nordraak.  Langgaard’s thoughtful tribute was ideal for the occasion and it is all the more remarkable since he was only fourteen when he composed it.

The entertaining Salzburg Overture by Grøndahl’s friend and colleague Walther Schrøder is a forceful, extravagantly orchestrated mid-twentieth century piece, not particularly Austrian in nature.  This was the premiere performance.

Svend Schulz, familiar outside Denmark for little more than his delightful Serenade for Strings, was mainly a choral composer.  He was conductor of the Danish Radio Choir for over thirty years.  He also composed film music but no recordings of his five Symphonies seem to be available.  His 1954 Opera Thunderstorm is subtitled ’Da Søren blev Mand’ (When Søren became Man).  The colourful overture increases in intensity over a strong repetitive rhythm but is not really suggestive of a thunderstorm. It is harmonically challenging but no more so than most works of the 1950s.

The whole production is an excellent tribute to Grøndahl and a treasure trove of largely unfamiliar Danish music.

Prokofiev eloquence decca masters

Prokofiev: The Decca Masters – Nikolai Malko, Eric Tuxen, Adrian Boult, Jean Martinon [Eloquence]

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3 of 5 stars

Prokofiev
Peter and the Wolf, Op.67a
Symphony No. 5 in B flat, Op.100b
Lieutenant Kijé – Symphonic Suite, Op.60c
The Love for Three Oranges – Symphonic Suite, Op.33d
Russian Overture, Op. 72e
Symphony No.7, Op.131e

Frank Phillips, (narrator)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Nikolai Malkoa

Danish State Radio Symphony Orchestra
Eric Tuxenb

Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire de Paris
Sir Adrian Boultc

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Adrian Boultd

Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire de Paris
Jean Martinone

Recorded: Kingsway Hall, London, UK, 6 December 1949a; 27–29 June 1955d; La Maison de la Mutualité, Paris, France, 9 June 1955c, 29, 30 October & 2 November 1957e; Danish Radio Concert Hall, Copenhagen, Denmark, 9 October 1952b


Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: July 2021
CD No: Eloquence 4840357 [2 CDs]
Duration: 145 minutes

 

 

It seems reasonable that Peter and the Wolf should be narrated by a BBC announcer, and here is Frank Philips delivering the words in immaculate, unaffected, ‘Oxford English’.  The impression is given of a lecturer in music – appropriate enough, although today’s taste might be for something less formal.  At the time, the version by another announcer (Wilfred Pickles) was more favoured.  The recorded quality is remarkable for its day (1949) which was just before the advent of Long Playing records.  Each instrument, linked to the appropriate character, is well defined and the overall sound is clear.

Much the same can be said for the well-detailed representation of the famous Danish orchestra in a different and slightly more resonant acoustic.  Decca’s ffrr system gave brightness, especially in the case of the upper strings, and even the older recordings achieve admirable presence. Symphony No.5 is given a sympathetic reading (1952),  Tuxen tended towards moderation, bringing out lyricism where suitable and achieving colourful weight at climaxes without accentuating their force.  This is so even in the spiky Scherzo but force is released in the very long coda to the final Allegro giocoso and here, over the clatter of insistent percussion, the orchestra drives forward excitingly with exceptionally bold brass.

Tuxen certainly gets good early 50s sound, but turning to Sir Adrian Boult’s French version of Lieutenant Kijé we have stereo and the orchestra is given much more colour.  Sir Adrian lets the delightfully quirky music speak for itself; he points the witty Wedding Scene without pushing it  forward, the dashing Troika reveals much sharp, gently humorous detail and the mock-sadness of Kjé’s funeral is subtly drawn.

The forceful, well-played performance of The Love for Three Oranges comes over less well in this mono recording from 1955.  Strings sound grainy and the Kingsway Hall acoustic – usually an advantage in early Decca recordings – seems not to add the usual warmth.  All tempos are ideal – the deliberate approach to the popular March movement is particularly effective.

In the discursive Russian Overture Paris Conservatoire Orchestra again emerges in excellent stereo (1957). The music is notable for interesting orchestration rather than musical significance and the occasional contribution of the low brass is effective as is the soft quality when strings play quietly.

The Seventh Symphony is given a sympathetic reading with a particularly thoughtful Andante espressivo.  The cheerful theme of the subsequent Finale is used for joy, for humour and also for sadness.  Prokofiev’s original quiet ending is reached soulfully to convincing effect.  This performance also provides the final merry bars which Prokofiev added at a later date. It is worth recalling that the composer once said to Rostropovich: ”you must take care that this new ending never exists after me”.  Both endings are in the score; the conductor must choose which to use.

Tchai Fistoulari

Anatole Fistoulari conducts Tchaikovsky’s Seranade and Ballet Music [Eloquence]

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5 of 5 stars

Tchaikovsky
Swan Lake, Op.20 [selection]*
Serenade for Strings in C, Op.48
The Nutcracker: Suite, Op.71a
Sleeping Beauty, Op. 66 [selection]

Concertgebouworkest*
London Symphony Orchestra
Anatole Fistoulari

Recorded: Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 22–23 February 1961 (Swan Lake)*; Wembley Town Hall, London, UK, 10–13 January 1962 (Sleeping Beauty), 13–14 November 1962 (The Nutcracker, Serenade)


Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: July 2021
CD No: Eloquence 4829366 [2 CDs]
Duration: 153 minutes

Half a century and more ago Anatole Fistoulari’s (1907-95) name appered on many a recording – sometimes on Mercury and Philips but mostly on Decca.  He was agift to music writers because there was so much to say about his colourful career.  Son of a conductor, Fistoulari was born in Kiev in 1907.  He was a child prodigy, conducting in Bucharest aged 13 and in Berlin with the State Opera Orchestra when still in his teens.  At 26 he was conducting in Paris with the Grand Opera Russe and with Ballets Russes with whom he toured extensively.  This is probably the basis of his remarkable skill interpreting ballet music – plainly evident in his many recordings. There was also much biographical detail to write about because in 1939 he joined the French Army where he fought on the front line against the Nazi invaders. He was invalided out, and after the fall of France escaped to England where in 1943 he became conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra with 120 concerts planned for his first year.  Further opportunity was given for journalists to feature him when he married Gustav Mahler’s daughter Anna.

In 1948 Fistoulari became a British citizen by which time his fruitful association with Decca had begun.  At the time his repertoire was concentrated on some of the best-loved and most popular orchestral music.  Hardly any symphonies were featured although he recorded a Beethoven 7 and a Schubert 8 shortly after the war.  Clearly evident was his immense sympathy for the music of Tchaikovsky and his consummate skill as a conductor of ballet music.  In these generous excerpts from Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, each some fifty minutes in length, Tchaikovsky is performed in a manner suitable for the stage: forward-moving and strong in rhythm.

The 1961 analogue recording of Swan Lake with the Concertgebouw Orchestra is of outstanding quality – a hi-fi spectacular in its time and comparable with some of today’s best digital presentations.  Detail is immaculate and attention is at once gripped by the exciting forte that succeeds the gentle introduction – I noted in particular the realistic bass drum.  Steven Staryk provides a superb violin solo in the extensive Pas d’action scene in Act II, and throughout there is expressive playing.  Colouration and dynamic contrast abound; how subtly the colours change in the Waltz where  the early pizzicatos ring through delicately;  the final scene commences with magnificent introductory horn playing,  and Fistoulari then builds towards one of music’s great moments as the plaintive theme, first heard as an oboe solo and subtly evident during the drama, blazes into to the major key.  This, together with the magnificent orchestral sound of these final pages is spine-chilling.

Giving detailed background information, Raymond Tuttle’s excellent booklet notes provide graphic descriptions of the synopses of the ballets.  Swan Lake ends with triumphant music yet the dénouement is given a tragic description.  There are differing choreographies, for I recall seeing a performance in which the hero and heroine were together at the fall of the curtain.

As in Swan Lake the written descriptions also make it possible to imagine the various scenes of The Sleeping Beauty as the London Symphony Orchestra takes us through this generous selection with vital playing, and apart from a less colourful representation of the lower instruments, the recorded sound is almost as impressive as that given the Concertgebouw Orchestra.  Fistoulari ensures that the same dancing rhythms apply.  Again, there is a scene featuring solo violin, and this is played elegantly by Hugh Maguire; it supports Aurora’s variation – a beautiful melody which in this selection is followed by the Panorama from Act II and then the famous Rose Adagio.  These three romantic sequences form a central feature of the selection and display the conductor’s sensitive understanding of Tchaikovsky’s music at its most beautiful.  In the final scene, his handling of the Apotheosis typifies the grandeur of the composition.

In the characteristic dances of The Sleeping Beauty the Three Ivans dance to authentically Russian rhythms.  In The Nutcracker the style of the Russian Dance is no less genuine, but here Fistoulari allows himself the wildest accelerando at the close – but then this is the familiar orchestral suite, it is not tied to stage performance so in the context freedom of interpretation is enlightening.  Other examples include subtle inflections given to the Waltz, revealing the essence of this ever-popular piece.

Though a favourite of chamber orchestras, there is something satisfying about the Serenade being played with a full body of strings. Here is a suitably glowing account, thoughtfully phrased and at times languorous especially in the Elégie.  The Waltz is interpreted delicately with flowing lyricism and the optimistic Finale has admirable rhythmic verve.

Sturm und Drang 1

Sturm Und Drang Volume 1 – The Mozartists|Ian Page [Signum Classics]

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4 of 5 stars

Gluck
Don Juan, Wq.52 – XXX: Larghetto; XXXI: Chaconne (Allegro non troppo)
Jommelli
Fetonte – “Ombre che tacite qui sede”
Haydn
La canterina, Hob.XXVIII/2 – “Non v’è chi mi aiuta”
Beck
Symphony in G minor, Op. 3/3
Traetta
Sofonisba – “Crudeli, ahime, che fate?”; “Sofonisba, che aspetti?”
Haydn
Symphony No.49 in F Minor, Hob.I:49 (La passione)

Chiara Skerath (soprano)

The Mozartists
Ian Page


Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: July 2021
CD No: Signum Classics SIGCD619
Duration: 71 minutes

 

 

The final scene from Gluck’s Don Juan is an orchestral portrayal of the Don being cast into Hell.  A threatening slow introduction leads to the often-performed Dance of the Furies.  Boccherini was so impressed that he adapted this fiery orchestral showpiece very effectively for use as the finale to his D minor Symphony which is subtitled as ‘La casa del diavolo’.  Gluck’s dramatic creation is played with precise brilliance by the accomplished The Mozartists and makes an ideal overture to this collection entitled Sturm und Drang

Thereafter, the programming is bizarre.  Sprinkled between two excellent symphonic examples of the period are several operatic ‘bleeding chunks’ (to use Donald Francis Tovey’s famous description of bits taken out of operas).  Perhaps their connection to Sturm und Drang was thought to be represented by their consistent gloominess.  Jomelli’s Fetonte has Phaeton singing “the horror which oppresses me”, Haydn’s Gasparina complains that she is “Tormented and grieving” and Traetta’s Sofonisba sings “Ah my savage torment”.  At the end of her second aria there is the stage direction ‘She takes the poison’.  Perhaps 18th-century audiences enjoyed agonised operatic soliloquies and Chiara Skerath sings beautifully, she is even required to take the part of Phaeton.  Her soaring soprano voice with just a touch of vibrato lightens the gloom but out of their context these vocal fragments are of no significance.                                                                                                                                                                   

The two well-chosen Symphonies are another matter.  Franz Ignaz Beck (1734–1809) is largely ignored nowadays, although this G-minor symphony has been recorded once or twice.  It is darkly dramatic.  Scored only for strings with two horns, it is fierce from the outset, with momentary relaxations for effect, coped with skilfully by Ian Page so as not to lose the music’s impetus.  Beck’s symphony is as well constructed as one by Haydn or Mozart although the melodies are less memorable.  The Minuet is particularly sturdy and Page reveals an element of grandeur.  As with some conductors using period style, he makes the two Minuet repeats both before and after the Trio and here this seems suitable.

As with Beck’s, Page supplies Haydn’s sonata movements generously with repeats (it is rare but welcome to hear both in the opening Adagio movement) but the Minuet is peculiar. Taken rather swiftly the contour is ruined by making the first Minuet repeat after the Trio  but not the second.  Make both or neither and symmetry would be achieved but here the movement ends with the feeling: “where is the rest of it”? This is a shame because the dashing Allegro and Presto movements are played at high speed with conviction and amazing accuracy. This is an excellent period band. It plays at A=430 Hz with a warm string sound, but although cembalo continuo is indicated in the Universal Edition score of the symphony and a harpsichordist is named in the orchestral personnel, I cannot detect the instrument.