Old Nick’s Christmas CD Box

0 of 5 stars

Music by Bartók, Saint-Saëns, Shostakovich and Stravinsky

Various artists

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: December 2005
CD No: Please see text
Duration: Not listed

Nick Breckenfield rounds-up some ‘late’ reviews that just might serve as a gift for the festive season…

A Christmas present to an extraordinarily patient editor, who has been waiting some time for all of these reviews; and – serendipitously – now serve as recommendations for late Christmas presents…

Hyperion CDA67431/2 (2 CDs)

Chamber Music

The Nash Ensemble

Recorded 15–17 July & 28-30 July 2004 in Henry Wood Hall, London

There can be no better Christmas present than this wonderful disc from the Nash Ensemble – released (with no hullabaloo at all in the booklet notes) in its 40th-anniversary year (and another notable birthday for founder Amelia Freedman). Coupled with the Nash Ensemble’s unrivalled list of commissions, the repertoire recorded here shows the extensive range and style that typifies the quality and scope of these players. In short, this is a joy.

Following on from Stephen Hough’s award-winning and similarly enjoyable two-disc set of the piano concertos, Hyperion has another Saint-Saëns winner on its hands. While current financial difficulties suggest that we won’t be getting Hyperion versions of some of the obscure choral works (“Hail, California” or “The Promised Land”), I’ll happily make do with over two hours of some of the most purely enjoyable music you could ever hear. Effortlessly musical (Saint-Saëns was prodigiously talented in creating melodies) and finely crafted, all these works – from the early Tarentelle written when he was 22, to the three late wind sonatas, written the year he died, when he was 85 – have an immediately loveable quality.

As it happens, probably the best-known work here, the Septet – for string quartet plus double bass, piano and trumpet – leaves me rather cold. The three late sonatas – oboe, clarinet and bassoon – may be a throwback to an earlier time than the 1920s, but they have an understanding of each instrument that I have always loved. The diminutive Tarentelle and Russian Caprice are delightful, and the two piano-and-string works, by far the most substantial pieces in the set are four-movement works of impressive stature that are definitely worth hearing.

Harmonia Mundi HMC901862

Piano Trio No.1 in F, Op.16
Piano Trio No.2 in E minor, Op.92

Trio Wanderer

Recorded in August 2004, Salle modulable, IRCAM, ParisLike the Piano Quintet and Piano Quartet – with 20 years in between – Saint-Saëns’s two piano trios (not duplicated on the Hyperion release) are separated by a long gap, nearly 30 years. Hardly staple repertoire, they are refreshed by French ensemble, Trio Wanderer, here recording repertoire of the musicians’ homeland for the first time on Harmonia Mundi, after acclaimed discs of Shostakovich and Schubert.

As ever with Saint-Saëns, one begins to wonder why such effortlessly musical works are so little known. The opening movement of the First Trio has a memorably insistent long–short/short/short–long pulse that underpins the whole triple-beat edifice, like a quick waltz. The unison opening, with folk-like drone, of the Andante ushers in a song Saint-Saëns collected in the Auvergne and there is a distinct dream-like reverie to the flow of the music, becoming more ardent as the instrumental lines depart, before coming back together for the final recapitulation of the folk/drone theme.

The jocular scherzo also indulges in unison/drone-like figures, as well as becoming quite forceful in the central section – and the whole movement, complete with an evaporating coda lasts just over 3 minutes. The finale pits the strings against the piano, with an expansion of the first movement’s rhythm, to include two dotted phrases between the long notes. The central section offers a slower contrast, from which the piano-ripples take the music to the recapitulation and the pizzicato-heralded coda.

As its minor key tonality might suggest, the later work is instantly more serious, and the layout – five movements instead of the normal four, in an arch going from fast, through middling to slow and back again, makes it almost Brahmsian. Here the IRCAM acoustic seems easily to accommodate the more strenuous take on much of the music in by far the longest movement of the two works (just over 10 minutes), leading to its grand closing chords.

The first ‘middle’ movement playfully adopts 5/8 in its outer sections, creating a halting rhythm, before raising the stakes in its central reaches, while the Andante con moto starts with just the piano, then the cello and, only latterly, the violin, but the lines are separate – like an extended vocalise; even when the strings play together it is in unison, rising nicely to the appassionato marking, before dying away. There is contrast with the delightful waltz-like movement that follows; then comes the fugal finale, announced with unanimity but developing helter-skelter into something breathless before the piano’s descending-then-rising motif points fellow players in the direction of the final bars and the frenetic unison coda.

These are likeable performances, well recorded, adding to the list of recent great services to the cause of Saint-Saëns.

PentaTone PTC 5186 046

Works for Chamber Ensemble

Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen
Paavo Järvi

The French connection, albeit perhaps strained between Saint-Saëns and Stravinsky (the one did not particularly care for the other: Stravinsky described Saint-Saëns as “that sharp little man” and Saint-Saëns stormed out of Le sacre du printemps twice!), but given that The Soldier’s Tale is as much a product of Stravinsky’s French years, despite being written in Switzerland, then it is not too far a leap.

Paavo Järvi recorded it in advance of him taking over as Artistic Director of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, and that was in January 2004, and it stands up very well against competition. This is, again, an extremely likeable disc, with well-chosen repertoire of small-ensemble Stravinsky, and Järvi’s decision to add the ‘Petit Choral’ from The Soldier’s Tale adds a nice little touch – even if only 45 seconds!

The Suite, just like the original performance piece (its run of first performances blighted by the ‘Spanish Influenza’ that hit after the First World War), is for just seven players, led by violinist Florian Donderer, and starts the disc (which then adds players through to the two small-orchestra Suites at the end: 11 for Ragtime, 15 for Dumbarton Oaks, 25 for the Concerto in D, 33 for Suite No.1 and three more for Suite No.2 – additional trumpeter, percussionist and pianist).

As it happens, listeners might find The Soldier’s Tale Suite a little tame. I’ve recently heard it with more bite, as befits a folk tale where the devil wins in the end, although the two chorales are beautifully effective. More acerbic, especially with its wonderfully distinctive use of the cimbalom (Stravinsky learnt to play the instrument himself!), is Ragtime, but it is the larger pieces that come of best with Järvi’s warm encouragement, and I especially liked Dumbarton Oaks.

All in all, a real charmer of a disc.

Linn Records CKD247

Symphony No.11, Op.103 (The year 1905)

Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Alexander Lazarev

Recorded 22–23 January 2004 in the Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Despite their common Russian heritage, the twenty years that separated Stravinsky’s and Shostakovich’s births put them a world apart and, while Stravinsky found himself without a homeland as the Soviet grip tightened on Russia around the time of his writing The Soldier’s Tale, Shostakovich was unable to break out of the Soviet system, and many regard his music as a form of resistance. In advance of Shostakovich’s centenary celebrations in 2006, Linn Records have released a Shostakovich Eleventh Symphony, courtesy of home-grown talent, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, under former Principal Conductor, Alexander Lazarev.

Lazarev has been a dedicated champion of Shostakovich. Linn Records were at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall in January 2004 to capture a performance that may not approach the overt excesses of a Rostropovich performance, but Lazarev steers his forces in an unerring course in describing the extraordinary scenes in front of the Winter Palace on that fateful 1905 morning.

Lazarev knows how to instil a chill into the music, so you can imagine standing there with the peasants with icons in front of St Petersburg’s Winter Palace, little knowing the Tsar’s panicked reaction in which the Palace Guard shot dead countless number of innocent people. But Lazarev also conducts Shostakovich as music, not just political commentary, and although chilly, with suitably troubling timpani, drum roll and trumpet interjections, the opening depiction of ‘The Palace Square’ includes raptly beautiful playing, the woodwinds particularly shining.

The full horror is ushered in by the rushing strings at the start of ‘The Ninth of January’, an undercurrent that is just as chilling as the eerie harmonies of the first movement. Lazarev and the recording engineers balance the tumultuous extremes well, especially the viscerally tangible sawing strings powering the music on. ‘In Memoriam’, after the adoption of appropriate revolutionary songs and a massive build-up, so too the finale – ‘Alarm Bell (Tocsin)’ – brusquely takes up revolutionary material, with the alarm bell surely a warning to the Tsar and the aristocracy that their days were numbered. The opening music returns, here with sombre tones of the cor anglais, which lead to the final exhortation, of utmost defiance. If perhaps not as gripping in Lazarev’s hands as Saraste’s in his 2005 Proms performance (with his suitably antagonistic glare towards the audience), this is still a satisfyingly powerful end to a very good rendition of this programmatic symphony, with clanging bell and thumping drums still ringing in your ears after the climactic full stop.

Warner Classics 2464 61953-2

Duke Bluebeard’s Castle

Bluebeard – John Tomlinson
Judith – Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet
Speaker (Prologue) – Mátyás Sárközi
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jukka-Pekka Saraste

Recorded on 7 September 2004 in the Royal Albert Hall, London

I don’t know how Warner Classics and the BBC decide on which Proms to release, but obviously the corporation’s own orchestras make it contractually much easier. Of the ten releases so far, nine are of the BBC’s own vintage – all but half a disc of those given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra (including two Last Nights), while the remaining one is a Prokofiev pairing with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (again with Lazarev) and the National Youth Orchestra.

The reason I wondered as to the release policy is because this concert performance of “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle” was not the one originally advertised. Conductor, orchestra and, for the ‘Prologue’, speaker remained as advertised, but the two singers were both replaced; Lazlo Polgàr dropping out early on, with John Tomlinson an eagerly-awaited replacement, but mezzo Ildikó Komlòsi was ill on the day and so Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet took over at short notice. Indeed it may have been impossible to release the performance with the original soloists, as they feature on Iván Fischer’s authentically visceral Philips recording. I would like to think that, in retrospect, looking back at a Proms season, this performance became a clear contender for release on its own terms.

This Proms performance was a memorable one – as one has come to expect from Saraste (indeed, the first half – the UK première of Sariaaho’s Orion – forms part of another enterprising release from Warner Classics of contemporary works). One would hope Saraste’s stunning performance of Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony with the BBCSO from Proms 2005 may also find its way onto CD.

Tomlinson has recorded the role of Bluebeard before, with Bernard Haitink and Anne-Sofie von Otter and the Berlin Philharmonic in 1996). This Proms performance has greater presence, Tomlinson being more idiomatic (although I have to take both singers’ Hungarian pronunciation as read) and Charbonnet certainly has a more full-bodied voice than Otter. Saraste beats Haitink by about two minutes, but dwells more than Fischer, who knocks five minutes off Saraste’s timing.

The recording is an exceptionally vivid one, the voices slightly forward, but with no loss of definition for the orchestra. Saraste is very atmospheric in grading Bartók’s troglodytic soundscape, and the opening of the doors – the first with instruments of torture, the second Bluebeard’s armoury, the third his treasury, the fourth his secret garden, the fifth his vast kingdom and the sixth a lake of tears, this last especially resonant with organ and brass chords to shake your house’s foundation. Finally Judith demands the seventh key, but she already knows what lies behind – Bluebeard’s previous wives who she now has to join…

Without doubt one of the most successful of the Warner/BBC releases and, if not particularly suitable for a Christmas round-up, worth playing during the day, so as not to let Bartók’s creepier sounds scare you too witless, the audible exhalation of the whole orchestra – the castle sighing – being just one prominent example.

Notes and synopsis, by Paul Griffiths, as well as English translation are as in the Proms programme on the night, joined by French and German: a worthy memento for any one who was there and a recommendation for those who were not.

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