A PERSONAL CHOICE OF RECENT CD RELEASES
Manfred Honeck lights the blue touch paper for a scorching Pittsburgh Symphony account of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony, combining explosive climaxes with moments of deep repose. The finale is the highpoint, the angry celli and basses delivering their sermon to the minions – though note the achingly beautiful quiet flutes, oboes and clarinets at around the 2:00 mark – before ushering in the Ode to Joy theme from the far distance. Thereafter, the excellent soloists (Christina Landshamer, Jennifer Johnson Cano, Werner Güra, Shenyang) and the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh support Honeck’s superbly drilled players for what is surely his finest recording so far. The quick-marching tenor solo is particularly striking. If the Ninth doesn’t shock as well as uplift, something’s not right – and you can rest assured that here the performance works on every level. Honeck’s comprehensive and well written booklet note (with exact disc-timing cue points) serves as a guide to both the symphony itself and the conductor’s often individual reading of it (Reference Recordings FR-741SACD, £13.50*).
*all prices are approximate
Those in the know will appreciate that the American-Israeli violinist Gil Shaham’s playing style is as natural as breathing, his tone warm but never over-ripe, his grasp of various technical challenges often awesome. His San Francisco account of Alban Berg’s heart breaking Concerto ‘to the Memory of an Angel’ (the angel in question being 18-year-old Manon Gropius, the daughter of Alma Mahler [once Gustav Mahler‘s wife] and Walter Gropius) is poignant beyond belief, especially in the Concerto’s second half where, beyond highly dramatic material that could as well have originated from a fifties American film soundtrack, Berg ushers in the conciliatory chorale melody “Es ist genug” (It is enough), music used in a sacred context by Bach. Therein lies the nexus of the whole piece, Berg’s aching dissonance framing Bach’s ethereal harmonization (on clarinets), one of the most moving gestures in the whole of twentieth century art music. Not only does Shaham achieve the desired level of emotional restraint but Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony offer him sensitive, well focused support. The same all-Berg cd, which is magnificently recorded, also includes Seven brief Early Songs (beautifully sung by Susanna Phillips) which visit worlds already inhabited by Mahler and Strauss, and the devastatingly powerful Three Orchestral Pieces Op. 6 where the final March takes the Mahlerian axis even further by employing thunderous hammer blows. You’ll search far and wide for a recording that’s more imposing than the one MTT offers us here (SFS Media SFS 0080 [hybrid multi-channel], £19.00).
‘Imposing’ is something of an understatement when it comes to conveying the essence of Benjamin Grosvenor’s Decca recording of the Liszt Sonata, where this most charismatic of young British pianists combines awesome control with what sounds like a fierce temperament. Timing, tone, attack (the fugal third section, where Grosvenor rushes forth without tripping), finger velocity (swirling figurations), mastery of rhythm and rubato, songful phrasing (the andante second section), imaginative pedalling (the work’s mysterious close), not to mention a sure grasp of the Sonata’s overall structure, all add up to a moving and exciting encounter with this greatest of all Romantic piano sonatas. After listening to it I thought to myself, ‘surely this can’t be as good as Horowitz, Cortot, Barere, Curzon, Richter, Gilels, Katsaris [and so on]’, so I checked out all those versions for comparison. Not as good? Absolutely on their level … certainly that’s the way I felt for a good few days after hearing it. The all-Liszt couplings include the three Petrarch Sonnets, passionately despatched, the rarely heard second (thoughtful) version of the Berceuse, the spectacular Reminiscences de Norma and Schubert’s Ave Maria. Grosvenor is the perfect example of a brilliant young player whose principal virtue, namely musicality, is quite unteachable. You’ve either got it or you haven’t. Marvellous sound (Decca 485 1450, £12.75).
Rachmaninov is widely considered to have been the twentieth century’s greatest pianist but his skills as a purely orchestral composer have in the last forty years or so benefited from the keen advocacy of such conductors as Vladimir Ashkenazy, André Previn, Mariss Jansons and most recently, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor of the American Orchestra most closely associated with Rachmaninov’s music – with whom he made various recordings – the Philadelphia. That was back in the pre-war era when ‘the fabulous Philadelphians’ (as they’re known) sported lavish string slides and a luscious pooled tone. Since those days, the tone, though still distinctive, has slimmed somewhat and the slides make only an occasional showing. Nézet-Séguin’s coupling of the First Symphony and the late masterpiece that quotes it, the Symphonic Dances (DG 483 9839, £12.75), is impressive, the Dances – which have one foot in the New World while the other remains firmly rooted in Old Russia – making an especially strong impression. These are taut, immediate and warmly expressed performances, but I’m also drawn to an extremely well played and stunningly well recorded set of Rachmaninov’s complete orchestral works by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra under Lan Shui (BIS -2512 SACD, four discs, £35.00) where the First sounds darker and more authentically ‘Russian’ than under Nézet-Séguin and the problematic finale more convincing. Anyone searching for a relatively inexpensive way to investigate these remarkable works need look no further.
Turning to the ‘lighter side’ of orchestral music Neeme Järvi conducts the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra in French Music for the Stage (Chandos CHAN20151, £11.50), seventy-nine minutes’ worth of cheery repertoire starting with a dazzling account of Thomas’s tuneful overture to ‘Raymond’ (or The Queen’s Secret’. Much of the music programmed is less than familiar though I doubt it’ll remain so once you’ve auditioned the disc. I’m thinking of Massenet’s Espada, and the ‘Scène de Bal and Vieille and Chanson’ from Le Roi s’amuse by Delibes. Also included, music by Auber and Boildieu. Great sound, too. And if you’re attracted to the idea of some fun French music on a smaller scale, ‘Belle Epoque’ (French Music for Wind) featuring the Orsino Ensemble and pianist Pavel Kolesnikov (Chandos CHSA 5282, £11.50) should fit the bill ideally. Elegant playing of predominantly lyrical works by Roussel, Saint-Saëns, Debussy Chaminade, Koechlin, Caplet (his 27 minuet Quintet, the most substantial work on the programme), all of it extremely well recorded.
As to Baroque instrumental repertoire, how do you fancy venturing beyond the worlds of Rameau, Handel and Telemann to something completely new? Why not try Hannover-born Francesco Venturini’s Concerti di camera (Audité 97.775, £13.50) works that are French-Italian in style and infused with varied textures, seductive melodies and bouncy rhythms (often buoyed by prominent percussion). In 1698 Venturini became violinist in the court chapel of Electorate of Hanover where he had married in the previous year. La festa musicale has come up with an enticing programme, the highlight of which is probably the Concerto No.9 in G minor with its texturally rich Aria third movement, music dominated by its telling use of bassoons. And for gale-force winds and recollections of Rameau try ‘Furies’ from the Concerto No. 11, where a wind machine and drums suggest thunder and lightning. The brief gigue that closes the ‘Overture No.5’ with what sound like castanets is a real earworm. These are substantial pieces, musically memorable and superbly played.
More tempestuous fare arrives courtesy of Antonin Dvorák whose relatively youthful String Quartet No.4 (which the composer subsequently rejected) opens to what sounds like a quarter-of-hour confessional, intense, impassioned music with lyrical episodes for contrast. But the heart of the piece is the ‘Andante religioso’ second movement, music that Dvorák went on to reuse, most popularly as an orchestral ‘Nocturne’ and that the Fine Arts Quartet plays most beautifully (Naxos 8.574205, £7.50). Dvorák’s early chamber music is a real treasure trove even if occasionally prone to overstatement. The coupling though, written some eight years later, is a masterpiece. The String Sextet was premiered in 1879 by an augmented Joachim Quartet. Here the additional players are violist Anna Kreetta Gribajcevic and cellist Jans Peter Maintz. As to where to dip your toe in first, I’d say very the opening, which is surely as glorious as the openings to either of the Brahms Sextets or Serenades. The icing on the cake is the rarely heard Polonaise for cello for and piano played by the Quartet’s cellist Niklas Schmidt with Stepan Simonian at the piano.