Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra/Manfred Honeck – Tchaikovsky & Schulhoff

5 of 5 stars

Symphony No.5 in E minor, Op.64

Five Pieces (arranged Manfred Honeck and Tomáš Ille from Five Pieces for String Quartet)

Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Manfred Honeck

Recorded live at the Heinz Hall for the Performing Arts, Pittsburgh, June 17-19, 2022

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: September 2023
CD No: Reference Recordings CD and PCM streams; PCM 24/192 and above and DSD downloads from FR-752
Duration: 60 minutes



This is Manfred Honeck’s second Pittsburgh recording of this great Symphony. His first, which derived from a May 2006 concert, appeared on the Exton label and at first glance, because the timings – discounting applause – are virtually identical, you might wonder who needs this new one. Well, the new one is even more rhythmically alive and trenchant, with greater expressive and thereby emotional intensity, tension and far better sound.  

In broader terms Honeck’s interpretive style thankfully remains the same in that he eschews the indiscriminate swooping, swooning and tempo changes that disfigure so many performances, uses forward moving tempi, but when needed isn’t afraid to relax.

He takes his time in the opening fate motif and as always, pays scrupulous attention to the numerous dynamic markings, which means the music rises and falls as the composer intended. At 5.40 the tempo change to Molto piu tranquillo is seamless, as is the accelerando for the extended forte passage where the woodwind scales and arpeggios and three note fanfares are beautifully articulated, he powers his way through the development, taking note of marked tempo changes and the coda is quietly purposeful.  

The tempo at the start of the Andante cantabile is measured and you will rarely hear the famous horn solo played so quietly or eloquently – note the smooth move to Con moto at 2.45 and back to the opening tempo at 3.00. Unlike the first, this movement is full of mood changes and pace, which Honeck navigates effortlessly, aligned with some beautiful woodwind and string playing – like Mravinsky, live, not in the studio – they really do soar. The fate theme’s fortissimo outbursts are incisive and doom-laden; antiphonal violins allow you to hear their interplay. On a lighter note, at a flowing tempo Honeck brings a generous helping of Viennese charm to the gorgeous Waltz and its skittish second theme.

Unlike so many others he moves purposefully forward at the start of the finale – though Mravinsky and his Leningrad Philharmonic in Tokyo in 1975 (Altus) remain supreme here – the Pittsburgh strings sing the fate motif, now in the major key. Honeck gallops through the Allegro vivace with crashing timpani and blazing brass and is similarly impetuous in the coda. This is a great performance!

In the fill-up, Manfred Honeck and Tomáš Ille liked Schulhoff’s Five Pieces for String Quartet so much they decided, quite brilliantly, to orchestrate and rename them. Schulhoff died in Wülzburg concentration camp in 1942, aged 48, leaving behind a distinguished body of work and these dance pieces are tuneful and wonderfully inventive, boasting a host of seductive harmonies and rhythms, which should be in the core repertoire. As with the Tchaikovsky the performances are exemplary. 

As always with Honeck’s Pittsburgh recordings you get his extensive programmes notes, where he talks about the composer and why he interprets the music in the way he does, which is fascinating.  Sound-wise I listened to the DSD512 version from, which derives from a DSD256 master, edited in DXD and converted back, which has huge presence (you can actually hear the hall acoustic and instrumental timbres), clarity, power and an extended, realistic dynamic range. 

I also streamed the PCM 24/96 and 16.44.1 CD quality versions. The first of which is similarly excellent if less life-like and with less space between the instruments than the DSD; while, as these things go, the 16/44.1 is up there with the best silver-disc can offer. 

Vito Palumbo – Woven Lights

Vito Palumbo – Woven Lights

4 of 5 stars

Violin Concerto

Chaconne: (i)Woven Lights, (ii) The Glows in the Dark

London Symphony Orchestra
Lee Reynolds

Francesco D’Orazio (violin & electric violin)
Francesco Abbrescia (live electronics)

Recorded at Abbey Road Studio 1, London on September 17, 2016 (Violin Concerto) and Mola di Bara, Italy, January 19-20, 2021 (Woven Lights)

Reviewed by: David Truslove

Reviewed: July 2023
CD No: BIS 2625
Duration: 58:15



This recent disc from Italian composer Vito Palumbo (born 1972) is the second of two CDs of orchestral works issued by BIS. The first from 2018, featured a trio of concertos for cello, harpsichord, and recorder.  Each piece, including those within this recording, reflects Palumbo’s preoccupation with orchestral timbre and texture in works for soloist and symphony orchestra. In the booklet that accompanies the CD, the composer indicates these largescale works share “an organic idea of interconnected and interdependent formal moments and gestures, like a network of neural connections”.

Lasting some 30 minutes and conceived across a single span, the Violin Concerto (2015) occupies an arch-like structure set in motion by low, percussion-led sonorities. Within the accumulating tension and before the soloist’s first entry, the composer says that a small melodic cell is introduced and “presented repeatedly, often without any kind of alteration, from which an episodic path unfolds”. Thereafter, blocks of sound build and subside, the work’s sectionalised design catching the ear for its bold imaginative timbres (always transparent and never intruding on the soloist) that support idiomatic violin writing across a changing landscape that reminds the listener of of Berio, Berg and Henze. A sense of drama and purpose is evident throughout, even when the score seems to stand still following a poignant oboe entry signalling an expressive soliloquy. Altogether, an eventful work where interest is sustained as much by its ever-changing timbres, as is the assurance and sensitivity of violinist Francesco D’Orazio. Under the guiding hand of conductor Lee Reynolds, whose ear for detail is second to none, the London Symphony Orchestra are adroit and sympathetic collaborators.

Colour, or at least timbre, takes on a more contemporary dimension in Palumbo’s two-part Woven Lights (2019-20), of which the opening Chaconne is scored for a 5-string electric violin, sampled sounds and electronics. Duties are shared between D’Orazio (electric violin) and Francesco Abbrescia (electronic realisation). According to the booklet, the score “carefully indicates the different ways in which the electronics should intertwine with the live electric violin”. How much that helps the listener is anyone’s guess, and I will take Gianni Morelenbaum Gualberto’s word that the “principle of variation, the essence of the chaconne, is retained in the first part of the piece”. 

Whatever advanced technical devices are employed; Woven Lights is a richly conceived amalgam of actual and computer-generated sounds, accruing in interest across its 18-minute span, and amply illustrating Palumbo’s theatrical instincts. No less involving is the equally atmospheric The Glows in the Dark for electric violin and 30 pre-recorded electric violin parts, where overlapping parts anchor fragmented solo writing to create an intriguing and at times hallucinogenic soundscape. 

Overall, a fascinating release that offers stimulating listening coupled with an impressively clean sound. 

Bernard Herrmann on Chandos

4 of 5 stars

Bernard Herrmann
Suite from Wuthering Heights [arr. Hans Sørensen]
Echoes for Strings

Keri Fuge (soprano – Cathy)
Roderick Williams (baritone – Heathcliff)

 Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Mario Venzago
Joshua Tan

 Recorded at Esplanade Concert Hall, Singapore in May 2022

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: June 2023
Duration: 81 minutes



Was Bernard Herrmann a truly great composer? When in 2010 Gramophone magazine staged a debate on the matter with John Amis, Rumon Gamba and Adrian Edwards, Amis was unambiguous – ‘I don’t think it’s great music, but it’s entertaining’ – not necessarily a verdict that makes much sense. Genius or not, Herrmann never set out to please. An accidental movie composer, he lacked not only the affability of younger colleagues (tellingly André Previn was derided as ‘that jazz boy’) but also the stylistic dexterity and pragmatism expected of so-called ‘background’ music. Like Copland and Vaughan Williams when writing for the cinema, Herrmann had no truck with Broadway tropes, Viennese nostalgia or (later) Sixties pop. Instead he fashioned scores from nagging, gnomic ideas, obsessive ostinatos and low-register glowering, his progressions often rising and falling without resolution to create a very particular brand of suspense. His magnum opus, the opera Wuthering Heights (completed in 1951 after eight years of work), is framed by music reminiscent of both Citizen Kane and the minatory percussive strokes that would one day launch Taxi Driver, attesting to Herrmann’s stubborn stylistic constituency throughout a checkered career. Significantly synchronous Hollywood assignments included Jane Eyre (1944) and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947).

A radical in the studio, Herrmann’s concert music has often been described as ‘unfashionably romantic’ – that implication is in the notes here too – yet Wuthering Heights has little truck with big tunes, the moors evoked rather as first cousin to Holst’s Egdon Heath albeit on a positively Wagnerian scale. Edward Greenfield noted ‘echoes of Delius, of Warlock (particularly of The Curlew), even of Holst’s Savitri.’ If Puccini is present it is as the progressive of La fanciulla del West. The opera’s neglect may have had less to do with the supposed obsolescence of its idiom than with Herrmann’s refusal to compromise, to soften the ending or countenance cuts to a very long score in which atmosphere is prioritized over incident. A certain four-square quality, shared with the likes of Miaskovsky, is exaggerated here by the faithfulness of the text extracted (by Lucille Fletcher, the first of Herrmann’s three wives) chiefly from the first part of Emily Brontë’s novel and the generally syllabic way it is set. Having acquired a local rival in Carlisle Floyd’s shorter music drama on the same subject (1958), Herrmann financed a recording of his own score in England in 1966 (for Pye, later reissued on Unicorn-Kanchana). His opera has since been posthumously staged in Portland (1982), Minnesota (2011) and Braunschweig (2015), while a 2010 concert version from Montpellier under Alain Altinoglu is available on the Accord label. The cantankerous composer would have vetoed most of these undertakings as insufficiently respectful of his original concept.

Hans Sørensen’s radical solution is to focus even more closely on the main protagonists in an hour’s worth of material representing not quite a third of the whole. You might recognise ‘I have been wandering through the green woods’.  The one bit of the opera to have made discernible progress into the mainstream, it features on recital discs by Renée Fleming and Kate Royal. Katharine Fuge readily pulls at the heartstrings with her brighter, less sumptuous instrument. Judging from Morag Beaston in 1966 (before she sang her first Turandot) this is the penetrating voice type Herrmann preferred for the role. Heathcliff is incarnated by the lyric baritone Roderick Williams, very much not the Wagnerian sort favoured elsewhere, his lovely tenor-ish colours balanced these days by some furrier wobble in the lower register. Is there another singer with such superlative diction? Probably not but he does sound a bit old for Cathy. The quietly ecstatic parts of the opera are best served, the melodramatic element under-represented and less compelling when it is. Is that, as listeners may assume, entirely Herrmann’s fault? Alain Altinoglu and his cast offer something altogether less subtle throughout, delivered mostly in Franco-Belgian varieties of English. Herrmann’s own vintage set admits some Archers-style rural accents. Presumably by design, Chandos’s ‘suite’ stands at greater remove from the drama. The production team apply sonic distancing to the incorporeal Cathy but there is no wind machine in the closing stages. The surround sound is as clean and faithful as the chaste, often very beautiful playing of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra for Mario Venzago. 

The coupling fleshes out the string quartet, Echoes (1965), nowadays readily accessible in rival recordings. Attitudes to this kind of full string band projection of intimate, elegiac fare will vary. The effect here is to bring us closer to the Hitchcock scores, though to cite MarnieVertigo and Psycho as the ‘sources’ of Herrmann’s inspiration rather than evidence of a common motivic gene pool would doubtless have enraged the composer. With Joshua Tan taking over conducting duties, the sense of intimate dialoguing is not wholly lost.

In short, this is a fascinating project, not easy to assess but certainly one to revisit. Accessible as it is in some respects, this is music reluctant to reveal its innermost secrets. Amis was notably scathing about the opera: ‘I think there are a lot of film gestures and atmospheric gestures in it but I do think it’s the most boring piece … it’s a bit like eating polystyrene and there’s such a lack of melody. Although there’s one good song in it, the rest is really rather feeble.’ Is this fair?  Over to you…


Vaughan Williams Symphonies 7 & 9 – BBCSO/Martyn Brabbins – Hyperion

0 of 5 stars

Vaughan Williams
Sinfonia antartica (Symphony No.7) *
Symphony No.9 in E-minor

Elizabeth Watts (soprano) *
Women of the BBC Symphony Chorus*

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Martyn Brabbins

Recorded at Watford Colosseum on 13 & 14 March 2022

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: April 2023
CD No: CDA68405
Duration: 79 minutes



As with previous issues in Martyn Brabbins’s Vaughan Williams cycle, not as it turns out a permanent casualty of the pandemic, these are deeply considered performances likelier to satisfy initiates than wow the uncommitted. The pairing of the two symphonies least likely to find their way onto concert programmes until recently is fascinating in itself, confirming an enduring shift in compositional impulse from the contrapuntal to the cinematic. It also brings Brabbins into direct competition with Andrew Manze, perhaps the most radical of recent VW interpreters on disc. While both series were produced by Andrew Keener, the sound engineer usually Simon Eadon, the results are readily distinguishable.

Ever the iconoclast, Manze surprised with a Seventh in which the superscriptions, finely read by Timothy West, cannot be programmed out and whose orchestral content is balanced more brightly and sharply than usual. Two respects in which Brabbins (alone) has less in common with André Previn (plus Ralph Richardson). With both newcomers VW’s Soviet-style piano writing and idiosyncratic flecks of glitter, tuned and untuned, register as they never could in the 1960s. Hyperion’s recordings must be among the last to be made in the Watford Colosseum, a venue currently undergoing transformation. It had a richer, deeper bloom in 2022 than Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall for Manze in 2018. Both realisations give the soprano a more corporeal presence than might have been expected. Brabbins has audio samples of ‘real’ wind where Manze boasted some kind of electronic kind of wind machine. Opt for Brabbins if you think it a good idea to convey the intransigence of the landscape by trudging implacably through it. The great organ intervention emerges ‘naturally’ rather than ‘rhetorically’ here and thrill-seekers may find that disappointing, notwithstanding the glorious deep-focus of the sonics. Manze’s organ was avowedly ‘fake’ or at least superimposed from another venue, the player separately credited. If you prefer a softer grain and the ‘authenticity’ of raw nerves anesthetized by the intense cold, Brabbins is your man. Most evocative when rumbling in subterranean depths, his percussion is never spotlit to sound larger than life.

In the Ninth, where Manze chose some experimentally deliberate tempos, partly abandoned in his live performance with the LPO last October, Brabbins is more mainstream. Everything flows. Just don’t expect a flow of lava as in the pioneering accounts of Stokowski and Boult. This is patient, humane, (slightly watery?) VW, more lyrical than astringent. Potentially stodgy too when cross-rhythms are sometimes left to fend for themselves, subjective lifting eschewed. The concluding washes of harp and saxophone certainly make their sensational sonic mark but is the resolution (not the right word for so mysterious and multifaceted a farewell) sufficiently hard won? It must be your call.

No room this time for the obscure fillers gracing previous instalments, although Hyperion again provides a copious textual supplement from Robert Matthew-Walker. If the booklet is not always easy to read that’s because so much is packed into it. The choice of artwork is as appropriate as ever, daringly blenched, eschewing frivolity and hype. Which just about sums up the appeal of this series and, perhaps, that of the Hyperion label itself.


John Wilson & Sinfonia of London record Rachmaninov’s Symphony No.2 for Chandos

4 of 5 stars


Prelude in C-sharp minor, Op.3/2 [orch. Stokowski]

Symphony No.2 in E-minor, Op.27

Sinfonia of London

John Wilson

Recorded at the Church of St Augustine, Kilburn, London on January 6-8, 2022

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: April 2023
Duration: 64 minutes



And still they come. John Wilson and his classy pick-up ensemble would now appear to be embarked on a Rachmaninov symphony series and, as is often the case with this conductor, the results are not quite what might have been expected. The team recently turned in a programme comprising a high-voltage account of the Third Symphony (albeit one overdriven in its closing stages), an unimpeachable Isle of the Dead and a ruthless-sounding Vocalise. Intelligent planning given that all three pieces were committed to disc by Rachmaninov as conductor. The main attraction this time is the Second Symphony where no such model exists. The work was first set down in abbreviated form by Nikolai Sokoloff in 1928 (digitally transferred for the Cleveland Orchestra’s 75th-anniversary limited edition); it lasts 46 minutes as opposed to the now customary 60 minutes or so.

To some degree Wilson is leapfrogging recorded precedent, returning to first principles. He takes the first-movement exposition repeat, seats the violins antiphonally and ensures that the text is purged of any bogus percussion. I was expecting him to opt for something rapid-fire, impulsive and vaguely Russian-sounding but in fact we are closer to Stokowski, Ormandy or Previn than Mikhail Pletnev in Moscow. The mood is not noticeably frenetic and, in the finale, might be thought at times dangerously relaxed. Wilson’s treatment of the big tune in which Rachmaninov breaks his mould of stepwise melodic motion, seems limper, more indulgent than Previn’s, well-observed as it is. Then again the conductor presumably wants to define sectional demarcations more clearly, as he does throughout, giving clearer shape to what is indubitably a long structure. No complaints about the playing per se with much careful attention to string sonority, now super-articulate and ‘modern’, now flecked with portamento. The finale’s tintinnabular cascade across different sections of the orchestra (sometimes cut in former days) is treated with the utmost sensitivity. It’s just that I can imagine some listeners feeling that the performance lacks the nth degree of thrust. Chandos provide a booklet note by David Fanning which reminds us that the Symphony is indeed the most protracted of Rachmaninov’s non-operatic works.

The curtain-raiser is something of a rarity, a Stokowski arrangement, once excoriated as “unashamedly vulgar” in the august pages of Gramophone and taped live by the conductor himself with the Czech Philharmonic in 1972. No doubt Wilson remembers that Stokowski was almost alone in rendering the Second Symphony uncut, or at least he did so at the Hollywood Bowl in 1946. In Kilburn 2022 the gargantuan effect of his transmogrified Prelude is ramped up by a recording of vast dynamic range. This is a score I’ve not heard for a generation and I’m not sure how seriously it should be taken. Sakari Oramo directed at least one performance with the CBSO. Wilson gives us what sounds like Mussorgsky on steroids, foregrounding Stokowski’s overused string tremolando in unembarrassed fashion while attempting to inflect the melodic line with the sort of rhetorical rubato more naturally delivered by a pianist. Once again Brian Pidgeon and his team succeed in squaring ecclesiastical resonance with closely observed detail. The quivering strings and melodramatic brass may put older listeners in mind of Decca Phase 4 and the hi-fi showrooms of yesteryear. Or perhaps that was just me remembering happier times. Recommended.

HK Gruber records Kurt Weill’s Symphonies for BIS

3.5 of 5 stars


Der Silbersee (1932-33) [excerpts*]

Symphony No.1 (1921)

Symphony No.2 (1933-34)

Swedish Chamber Orchestra

HK Gruber (conductor and vocals*)

Recorded at Örebro Concert Hall, Sweden, 16-21 August 2021

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: March 2023
CD No: BIS-2579 [SACD]
Duration: 59 minutes



It might help the wider dissemination of these works, all newly available in officially approved editions, if we could settle on nomenclature and other variables. The first piece, an epic drama subtitled Ein Wintermärchen (A Winter’s Fairy Tale), is sometimes The Silver Lake – Silverlake is more applicable to the show as posthumously recast for New York with an English libretto by Hugh Wheeler and lots of different music. The earlier Symphony goes by several aliases including Symphonie in einem Satz and Berliner Sinfonie, the score’s title page having been lost during its sojourn in a convent. The first known orchestral performance was not until 1958. The Second Symphony, or Fantaisie symphonique (which someone at BIS prefers), is more familiar to mainstream music lovers but by no means as ubiquitous as it deserves. As with certain Russian symphonies one can never be sure what percussion will be encountered in it. Most recordings go with timpani alone, presumably on the grounds that the other instruments were only added later at the behest of Bruno Walter, its original conductor in Amsterdam, 1934. Either way the composition remained sui generis. The composer’s early death ensured that he never went back on his decision to reinvent himself in the United States.

Direct competition for this particular pairing of the symphonies is offered by the conductor and scholar Anthony Beaumont on Chandos where the modest weight of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen is comparable to that of the Swedish Chamber Orchestra. Beaumont retains the tinkling and clatter which gives No.2’s finale a jollier profile. He also seems a little more inclined to acknowledge the music’s smoother, more traditional aspect elsewhere. HK Gruber, veteran provocateur, is all for sharp rhythms, harsh climaxes, eccentric voicings and spotlit solo lines. In the slow movement I was unsure whether the sympathetic emotive force of the argument was being downplayed deliberately. The booklet note makes reference to a kitsch-lite funereal tango. String tone is wispy, much as if Thomas Dausgaard were still at the helm essaying one of his attenuated retreads of Romantic fare. Perhaps the piece was bound to sound acerbic in the modestly sized Örebro Concert Hall. Still, it would be a stretch to imagine Bruno Walter’s Concertgebouw Orchestra balancing lines and textures in comparable fashion. Does that matter?

HK Gruber was in the cast when Markus Stenz and a riper sounding London Sinfonietta recorded their ‘complete’ set of Der Silbersee for RCA in the 1990s. Here he takes on two of the numbers assigned to other characters. His vocal declamation is as idiomatic as could be found today but being eightyish one should not expect the fullness of sonority that keeps Ernst Busch’s account of ‘Der Bäcker backt ums Morgenrot’ (The baker bakes at crack of dawn) sounding fresh as well as authentic. Gruber provides a spoken introduction to ‘Was zählen Sie für einen Rat’ (What would you pay for some advice) in comically fractured English.

The First Symphony, the filling of the sandwich here, is a stormy student effort, principally expressionist in manner. It predates Weill’s turn towards a more personal neoclassicism informed by the ideals of his teacher, Ferruccio Busoni, but is always an intriguing listen. The more frenetic passages evoke Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony. That said, if you’ve access to the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall, you can hear Kirill Petrenko and his big band giving the invention more coherence, legroom and colour. Older recordings of the piece are arguably obsolete now that James Holmes has corrected, in the words of his publisher, “a host of incorrect pitches, dynamics, and blatant errors”. I’m not sure what that says about Schott Music. Petrenko and Gruber are blazing a trail for these latest thoughts.

How to sum up? This is lively, committed, stylish music-making, nicely documented (although the song texts and translations prove rather small). Running time is not especially generous and you may or may not prefer a mellower, more cautious approach.

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

3 of 5 stars

Vaughan Williams
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis

Concerto for String Orchestra

Delius, arr. Fenby
Late Swallows

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
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

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
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.


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

4 of 5 stars

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


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.

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