Come May this year Australian Eloquence are releasing a 29-cd first volume of ‘Antál Doráti Mercury Masters’ (484 4064) featuring the Minneapolis and Chicago Symphony Orchestras, which will include numerous first releases on CD. Subsequent to Doráti’s Mercury mono masters will be a set of the Stereo Masters, but prior to either Decca have brought out an 18-cd collection of Doráti’s sessions with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (485 3114, c£86.00, with spined wallets, original jackets and excellent new notes by Decca Classics’ Label Director Dominic Fyfe). In a Gramophone Collector article for May 2014 David Patrick Stearns revealed that Doráti’s 1979 Detroit recording for Decca of Strauss’s Die Ägyptische Helenacaught found Gwyneth Jones in a state of vocal distress but I can’t imagine that in the wider context many potential punters will count Dame Gwyneth’s vocal improprieties as a stumbling block. Besides, Barbara Hendricks is in excellent voice while Doráti and his orchestra are on fine form. Still, best maybe to concentrate on the rest of the set which is mostly orchestral.

Bartók and Stravinsky were always writ large among Doráti’s Mercury recordings and it is interesting to compare these Detroit discs of the three big Diaghilev ballets with their Minneapolis and London predecessors. How do they stack up? In the case of The Rite of Spring although well recorded Doráti in Detroit lacks the tautness and drive that made his Minneapolis recordings for Mercury so memorable. The (complete) Firebird ballet gains in atmosphere and sonic splendour what it loses in bite (is the LSO version, again on Mercury) but in the case of Petrushka this Detroit option delivers levels of colour, humour and pathos that its Minneapolis predecessors lack. Apollon musagète features some extremely fine (though uncredited) solo fiddle playing but is rather heavy in texture overall. Then again the post-Rimsky, pre-Firebird Symphony in E flat is played with conviction and makes for a happy encounter as does its fill-up, the frothy, better-known Scherzo Fantasque.  

Turning to Bartok, Doráti’s name was so synonymous with the Miraculous Mandarin ballet that during his sojourn with the BBC Symphony he was known as ‘Mr. Mandarin’, or something very similar. His superbly played Chicago recording of the Suite (a mono Mercury) captures the music’s sophistication, seediness, sense of seduction and compassion like no other recorded performance since. A BBC SO version of the complete ballet (Mercury stereo) is relatively dry-sounding and this Detroit successor can be a bit unsteady on its feet (try 1:04 into track 2), though the organ in the opening scene makes a Gothic din and the chase is exciting rather than manic. A word of warning though. If you’re playing this disc on a system that recognizes all twelve tracks (ie, on a computer) you won’t be wrong-footed but both the booklet and the disc jacket listing suggest that there are fifteen tracks rather than twelve, that the Mandarin concludes on track 11 rather than on track 8. Just to clarify, The Mandarin occupies tracks 1-8, whereas tracks 9-12 feature a good performance of Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. There my own preference would be for an earlier Doráti recording on Philips with Philharmonia Hungarica.

Another Bartók disc pairs the youthful, bright-and-bushy-tailed First Orchestral Suite (Doráti recorded the Second Suite for Mercury) with the Two Pictures, the first like a scenic off-cut from Bartók’s opera Bluebeard’s Castle, the second, a village dance that at 7:15 takes slow, gigantic strides before accelerating light-footedly into the distance, a passage that Doráti negotiates with enormous skill. An all-Tchaikovsky disc includes a work that years ago topped the Mercury sales charts, the 1812 Overture, but thankfully this Detroit remake doesn’t suffer the ear-grazing pitch discrepancy between bells and orchestra that rather spoils both Mercury versions (mono and stereo), exciting though they are. Equally enjoyable is a coupling of Grofé’s cinematic Grand Canyon Suite and Robert Russell Bennett’s piecemeal Porgy and Bess ‘Symphonic Picture’ which starts off well enough but just before the end seems to take stock as if to check that no hit numbers are missing only to find that shock horror! – ‘It ain’t necessarily so’ isn’t there, so Bennett dutifully tacks it on. It’s a well-played performance though, very idiomatic.

Other Americana includes Copland’s Dance Symphony, Fanfare for the Common Man, Appalachian Spring Suite, Rodeo ‘Four Dance Episodes’ and El Salon Mexico, the last three less pungent but more genial than their Mercury predecessors. There are Strauss tone poems including a particularly impressive Also sprach Zarathustra that opens to a perfectly judged ‘sunrise’, and Karol Szymanowski’s symphonies Nos. 2 and 3, the first Western commercial recordings of either work that were warmly received when they first appeared back in July 1981. But were I to single out a disc that illustrates Doráti’s journey from being a keen-edged disciplinarian who took no prisoners (the man we encounter in those unforgettable Mercury years) to the warmer, more flexible, more accommodating musician we encounter in the late 1970s to the early 1980s it would be an all-Dvorák programme that features the Czech Suite and various shorter works including the beautiful Nocturne Op. 40. Beam up 3:47 when the trance-like music starts to gently dance among pizzicato basses and note, aside from the Detroit strings’ rapt playing, Doráti’s masterful use of rubato. Pure magic I’d say and proof beyond doubt that although those Mercury recordings are still essential listening the journey to Detroit proved more than worthwhile.  

A benchmark Nielsen symphony cycle

There can hardly be a more potent musical symbol for the war against Ukraine, the little man being set upon by a giant neighbour, than Carl Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony, its first movement bothered early on by a marching drummer who in time reappears when the strings play a noble anthem and he boldly goes out on a limb – drumming to his own tune, causing  chaos, but not chaos enough to obscure the anthem’s light. The movement closes as a lone clarinet joins the drummer in a slow retreat over a bed of string tone. The power of this music levels with anything in Mahler, Shostakovich or Prokofiev; it is war music writ large and to hear the Danish National Symphony Orchestra under their Chief Conductor Fabio Luisi play it as part of their superb newly released complete Nielsen symphony Cycle on DG 486 3471 (no price available as yet) is to hear its greatest recorded performance in recent years.

And that’s just a single symphony out of six. One Danish critic described the First Symphony as “a child playing with dynamite”, the outer movements brazenly confident, breezy music that knows no fear. Again Luisi excels in The Second Symphony which represents ‘the four temperaments’ (choleric, phlegmatic, melancholic, sanguine), music that bounds with exuberance in the outer movements whereas Luisi stretches the ‘melancholic’ third movement to a deeply expressive – and expansive – 12:57, the superb Danish strings remarkably rich in tone.

The radiant Second Symphony is perhaps the most immediately appealing of the six but the Third, or ‘Espansiva’, is in all respects a masterpiece, the first movement opening to a series of disembodied, accelerating chords then, come the central section, taking on the aura of a crowded funfair in full swing, a proportionally symphonic ‘Carousel’ sound-alike, this performance as energetic and impassioned as any we’re likely to hear. Solo voices lend a dream-like quality to the nocturnal second movement and I’m surely not the only commentator who hears in the finale’s second subject a coincidental prophecy of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ (at around 3:23).

The ‘Inextinguishable’ (Fourth) flies into action from the off, it’s range of moods and colours throughout strongly prophetic of Shostakovich, especially towards the end of the slow third movement when the strings set up a wild alarm similar to the faster music in Shostakovich 11.  The finale famously features a thunderous battle between two sets of timpani where Luisi and his players taken no prisoners: whether judged as a performance or as a spectacularly dynamic recording, this Nielsen 4 is one in a hundred, at the very least. Further parallels with Shostakovich arrive with the Sixth which, like Shostakovich’s symphonic swan song, employs percussion to establish a very special atmosphere (and note the crazy waltz in the finale, a mad world but not the last word).

Jens Cornelius’s excellent booklet note quotes Nielsen’s confession, made towards the end of his life, that if he could have lived his life again, he would have chased all idle fancies about art out of his head and taken a commercial apprenticeship ‘or do some other form of useful work that would lead to a visible final result. The creative artist’s lot is not a happy one.’ His wildly unpredictable and ceaselessly inventive Sixth Symphony proves just how misguided he would have been to abandon his holy vocation.

A fabulous set in honour of a hugely important symphony cycle. I cannot award it a higher recommendation than that.

ENDLESS FLIGHT The Life of Joseph Roth by Keiron Pim

(Granta, 527 pp, £25.00)

I owe it to my Gramophone colleague Richard Bratby who last year posted an announcement that he had reviewed the above book in ‘The Critic’ (which I still haven’t managed to track down) and therefore alerted me to Keiron Pim’s superb Roth biography, one of the best of any kind that I have read in recent years. Put briefly, Roth was an Austrian-Jewish journalist and novelist whose epoch-making novel Radetzky March about the decline and fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire condenses a War-and-Peace-like array of characters into a tighter space. My own introduction to Roth was via his letters, then the novella Job and The Wandering Jews, the latter about Jewish migrations from eastern to western Europe in the aftermath of the First World War and the Russian Revolution.

Roth himself, a Catholic convert (superficially a least), never denied his Jewish heritage and had infinitely more sympathy for Eastern Jews than for their Western counterparts. At the end of his life he craved a Galician-style diet of eggs with onions, and longed to sit with an old friend asking him to sing the Yiddish songs they knew from their childhoods. Roth grew up in Brody (currently part of Ukraine), a location that is powerfully evoked near the start of the book. Of his father Roth wrote, ‘he must have been a strange man, an Austrian scallywag, a drinker and a spendthrift. He died insane when I was sixteen. His speciality was the melancholy which I inherited from him’ (I think of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard here, who also inherited a melancholy streak from his father).

Pim traces Roth’s life and career, detailing his fraught but fruitful relationships with such writers as Stefan Zweig. His sense of political protest was fired by the hell that he saw evolving (he died, an alcoholic, in May 1939, just as Hitler was gearing up for war) and his pointed, deeply poetic prose evokes the complexion and aroma of a world long gone. Whenever Pim references one of Roth’s works he usefully offers a précis of what it is about, its style and scale, with numerous pertinent quotations. Roth’s aphoristic style lends itself to such an approach.

Anyone interested in middle-European writing from the period will be hooked, and Pim’s own writing matches that of his subjects. I can well imagine why one of his daughters renamed ‘Endless Flight’ ‘Endless Work’. It must have taken an age to complete but it was well worth the effort. Absolutely unmissable.

BE BRAVE ENOUGH TO LOVE YOUR FAVOURITE MUSIC and blow the wretched ‘anti-popular’ league

It’s all too easy to forget how people who don’t spend their every waking hour listening to ‘classical’ music react when a great, immediately appealing piece crosses their paths and they’re instantly hooked. The less familiar masters are all well and good – and should be programmed, broadcast and recorded on a regular basis – but for novices they pose more of a challenge, often to the extent that a lack of time gets in the way of a dawning appreciation. But I do get heartily sick and tired of the ‘why-yet-another-recording/broadcast/performance’ brigade when the answer is staring you full in the face: these listeners love the music.  Enough said, and never mind ratings and the rest of it. That’s corporate speak and shouldn’t concern the likes of us.


Given the energy crisis and other financial pressures, shelling out for Claudio Abbado – The Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon & Decca, 4862510, at c£670.00 might seem like one extravagance too far. Those who have already invested in various boxed subdivisions of the same material won’t in any case be interested, though the ingenious (if weighty) packaging that houses the ‘complete’ edition has award-winning potential: a lift-off covering for the whole box reveals, at first sight, a two-shelf collection, then turn the set round and it’s exactly the same on the other side, collections arranged back-to-back, so to speak. There are two thick, cd-size booklets – one each to serve their respective collection – and a larger hard-backed book placed on top with pertinent, well-written essays and a listing of the works included, many of them in duplicate versions. 

And so, what of Abbado himself, born 90 years ago this year? Did he have a specific ‘sound’?

While interviewing him some fifteen years ago we were discussing the finer aspects of interpretation when he made one point that I will never forget. ‘The thing is that if you underline a detail to the extent that it stands out, that’s already too much.’ Are his under-linings always that subtle? In a word, no. Take Beethoven’s Fifth, the first movement on his Vienna Philharmonic recording. Beam up from 3:30 into the development section and note how the descending cellos join and intensify the argument. The only other recording (in my experience) that tells it as it is as forcefully as this was taken down ‘live’ by the New York Philharmonic Symphony under Leopold Stokowski, and released on the Orchestra’s own label. Abbado’s Berlin recording is similar, but less striking. 

And there are his two versions of Beethoven 9, the finale’s ‘hokey-cokey’ march (with bassoon and tenor solo) lively in Vienna, then in Berlin, faster, wittier, almost impatient to reach the fughetta that follows. Its thrilling and contrasts markedly with the almost Böhm-like sobriety of the Vienna recording. So we’re not talking ‘early’ or ‘late’ Abbado but changes of heart that could take place at any given time. And influences? I remember years ago giving my first gramophone society talk, in Cirencester, playing part of Abbado’s Berlin Brahms Three and an audience member shouting out ‘regurgitated Furtwängler!’. Not quite, though Furtwängler was Abbado’s rostrum idol. 

As to Mozart, a solidly built LSO ‘Jupiter’ contrasts markedly with the later, more keenly inflected Orchestra Mozart version which, for all its keenness of attack avoids, in the Andante cantabile, the abruptness that characterises Martin Fröst’s Swedish Chamber Orchestra version (ie the staccato quaver chords that fall in the second and fourth bars, see my last post). Here those chords are altogether gentler though no less emphatic; true to his principles, Abbado is refusing to ‘underline a detail to the extent that it stands out’. Also the later version is more generous with repeats, specifically in that same second movement. Violin Concertos with Giuliano Carmignola head towards the period performance world without quite entering it and greatly benefit from the compromise. Abbado, his orchestra and his soloist weave in and around each other like so many prima ballerinas. 

Two Brahms symphony cycles again touch on the repeats issue, the First observing the repeated exposition in Vienna but not in Berlin (I personally favour losing it). The richly recorded Berlin set seems the more comfortable with itself (the early Berliner Staatskapelle Third suffers from hollow sound). Brahms Piano Concertos with Alfred Brendel are lighter in tone than the more implacable Maurizio Pollini options. As to Bruckner, I love the mellifluously handled Vienna Fourth, more genuinely Viennese sounding than Christian Thielemann’s recent Sony CD with the same orchestra (compare the two recordings of the finale), while the First – always an Abbado speciality – comes off brilliantly whichever recording you choose to audition.

Abbado’s Mahler is both prophetic of darker things to come and respectful of each work as an independent structure. What you hear is what is written. The Chicago Symphony First was personally significant in that it was the first recording of anything that I ever heard on CD. A friend had just acquired a player and invited me round to hear this deeply satisfying performance via the new ‘audio carrier’. I just couldn’t believe how the stillness of the opening was unburdened of hiss, quiet thumps, vinyl surface noise and the rest, just pure music that emerged out of the ether. But then Abbado was always a dab hand at extreme dynamics: both here and in his superb LSO account of Ravel’s complete Daphnis et Chloé ballet, ‘in the distance’ means just that. 

Abbado’s handling of the Sixth Symphony’s finale, the opening as recorded in Chicago, suggests argumentative Hobbits, or ‘halflings’, prattling away until an elder claps his hands and sends them off with marching orders. The players are noticeably individual whereas for his Berlin re-make the big talking point will be the joist-shaking hammer blows, louder and more shocking than any others on disc save perhaps on Michael Gielen’s last recording (SWR). Given the scope of the set I risk losing readers if I venture much further in terms of detail. There are distinguished opera recordings too, not least, Abbado’s LSO Carmen (with Teresa Berganza and Placido Domingo) which seems to typify the Nietzschean ideal of a work that is emblematic of a much needed “Mediterraneanization of music”, a “return to nature, health, cheerfulness, youth, virtue!” Nietzsche loved the work and later in life pitted it against what he perceived as the steamy excesses of his one-time friend Wagner. Abbado’s dancing performance is refreshingly transparent and superbly sung. The best Verdi performances are Don Carlos (with Domingo and Katia Ricciarelli), the Siegfried-size French version that is, and Simon Boccanegra (with Jose Carreras and Mirella Freni).  One of Abbado’s abiding passions was the music of Mussorgsky and another highlight is Khovanschina with Marjana Lipovsek and Vladimir Atlantov.

When Abbado stepped into Karajan’s shoes he cut down on calories, threw open the windows, and once nourished by fresh air, brought his own more outgoing range of repertoire (including favoured moderns) to the table, music that Karajan wouldn’t have touched with a barge poll. That and Abbado’s invariably lissome manner are what you get for your money. For me it’s a worthwhile deal.


WAM: the new rock’n’roll 

…. well not quite. But think back to Artur Schnabel’s zany cadenzas for the 21st and 24th Concertos, Friedrich Gulda pushing the solo line of 21’s Andante off the beat (so it sounds like finger-clicking jazz), Glenn Gould racing headlong through various early sonatas or holding some of the later ones in suspense, or Nikolaus Harnoncourt halting suspensefully at the centre of the 40th Symphony’s finale.

Memorable enough for me to recall off the top of me head as no doubt Martin Fröst’s striking Swedish Chamber Orchestra Jupiter Symphony will be for others, programmed as part of Martin Fröst Mozart: Ecstasy and Abyss on Sony 196587722524, 2 cds, c£13.99) which reflects Mozart’s dichotomous experiences in Leipzig and Prague towards the end of his life. The Jupiter’s initial ‘call to arms’ is greeted with a momentary pause before Fröst opens the trap doors for the Allegro vivace to race over hill and dale according to the dictates of applied dynamics. It’s exciting but will get some getting used to. Not however as much as the staccato quaver chords that fall in the second and fourth bars of the Andante cantabile second movement and which are played just so, like cannon shots during a warm (ie muted) embrace. Look at the score and you see that Fröst is doing what’s asked of him, and those ‘shots’ make even more sense later on in the movement. 

Fröst is of course best known as a superb clarinettist and I was delighted to encounter his playing of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto, music that can all-too-easily fall into ‘laid-back listening mode’ if its manner of performance is too relaxed. Fröst and his Swedish collaborators keep on the ball so the concerto-like, ie dialogic, aspects of the work remain in the forefront of your mind. Fröst plays a basset-clarinet, which is in essence similar to the soprano clarinet but longer and with additional keys to enable playing several additional lower notes.

This is a brilliantly planned programme. There are two symphonies and two concertos, each of the latter preceded by a nicely sung aria involving the featured instrument, the 25th Piano Concerto (Lucas Debarge) by the concert aria “Ch’io mi scordi di te? … Non temer, amato bene” (Will I forget you? … Fear not, beloved), sung by soprano Elin Rombo – one of the greatest compositions of the genre – and, prior to the Clarinet Concerto, “Parto, ma tu ben mio,” from La Clemenza di Tito with a basset-clarinet obbligato written for the composer’s friend Anton Stadler, for whom Mozart had only weeks before created his Clarinet Concerto.

You might daub the 25th Piano Concerto Mozart’s Emperor: he surely never wrote a more celebratory concerto, and Debarge, whose incident-packed manner of interpreting Mozart recalls that of the late Friedrich Gulda, conspires with Fröst to relish every bar, cavorting playfully one moment, or suggesting the world of song in the next. The second CD opens with a keenly pulsating account of the Prague Symphony where the concluding presto is super-fast and harbours numerous shock fortissimos. So if you nod off while listening, Fröst’s Prague sojourn will wake you up with a bang – literally! Great to listen to but make sure that you have Szell, Walter, Böhm, Karajan, Klemperer and others nearby, if only for sanity’s sake.


Dear reader, never suspect that I don’t sympathise when this tireless enthusiast has raved unconditionally about one performance, or set of performances, only to bounce back soon afterwards with a preference further up the scale. Take Mozart piano sonatas. Who have I recommended recently? Peter Donohoe (Somm), Elisabeth Leonskaja (Warner Classics), Mao Fujita (with some reservations, on Sony Classical) and now the South Korean pianist Yeol Eum Son (Naïve V 8049, 6 cds, c£27.25), recorded last year and celebrated for the ‘refined artistry, [ … ] breath taking technical control and a profound empathy for the emotional temper of the works within her strikingly wide repertoire.’ Those claims are quoted from her webpage at but my reactions are based exclusively on hearing the cds. Son’s style combines boldness and intelligence with fluidity, a sense of musical logic, simplicity of approach where appropriate and a level of interpretative freedom that harks back to the days of Artur Schnabel who, like her, never allowed Mozart to sound hidebound by formality. Part of the trick is to space chords with enough room to express feeling but not enough to allow the bar line to bend too far. The aria-like Adagio from Sonata No. 14 in C minor, with its luftpausen or meaningful hesitations is an ideal place to sample, playing that also exhibits grander moments (2:22, just prior to one of those pauses). And note the desolate 5-note motive or the brief premonition of Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata at 3:40. No. 15 in F major, which is treated to such honest reportage by Donohoe, has, prior to Son, shone most brightly under the hands of Mitsuko Uchida but here the luminosity of the first movement and the elegance of the add-on rondo-finale (the work was never finished) frame an Andante that, because of the repeat situation, stretches Uchida’s 9:28 to 12:10, then seals the effect with a marginal degree of added urgency. Urgency also characterises the whole of No. 9 in A minor, the first movement, another telling example of Son’s ability to ply the sonata with miniscule shifts in tempo and dynamics. No. 11 in A, the celebrated ‘Turkish March’ Sonata, is generous with repeats (all the sonatas are) and like No. 12 in F, is bold and vividly coloured. Everywhere you notice things you may not have noticed before, sforzandi, accents, dovetailed phrases and tiny embellishments that Son inserts across repeats. But more vital still is the listenability of these performances, the way they respond to frequent hearings. I stayed with them virtually for the duration. So – you’ve guessed already I suppose – my advice is to supplement your Mozart sonata library (be it Lili Kraus, Walter Gieseking, Uchida, Leonskaja, Donohoe, Robert Levin, Klara Wurtz, Maria Joao Pires, Daniel Barenboim, Glenn Gould, Angela Hewitt, Ingrid Haebler or whoever) with Yeol Eum Son, whose profound understanding of the music and keen sense of pianistic play will make the purchase more than worthwhile.

Schumann revitalised

Tempestuous, impulsive, self-questioning and wrapped in a mantle forged from love, Robert Schumann’s piano suite Kreisleriana (inspired by the character of Johannes Kreisler from the works of E.T.A. Hoffmann) dazzles the mind now as much as it would have done when it was written almost 200 years ago. Robert’s beloved wife Clara was his principle muse. As he himself wrote, “I’m overflowing with music and beautiful melodies now – imagine, since my last letter I’ve finished another whole notebook of new pieces. I intend to call it Kreisleriana. You and one of your ideas play the main role in it, and I want to dedicate it to you – yes, to you and nobody else – and then you will smile so sweetly when you discover yourself in it.” On the one hand, given the passage of time that has elapsed between the mid-19th century and the early 21st, it’s difficult to imagine ourselves back to the heady, even unhinged brand of romanticism that underlies this most confessional of Schumann’s piano works, while on the other the countless library shelves crammed with psychoanalytical studies perhaps offer some insight into Schumann’s brand of manic depression. Here Schumann’s self-created “Florestan” and “Eusebius” characters indicate his own contrasting impulsive and dreamy sides. But how to interpret them? In the 20thcentury Vladimir Horowitz and Alfred Cortot sent us on unimaginably inspired interpretative flights (both left us more than one recording of the work). But now? One pianist, and only one in my view, captures the breathless excitement of the animated opening, the introvert song that dominates the second, the third’s alternation of lyricism and agitation, the blatant contrasts in mood and colour in the (slow) fourth piece and the (lively) fifth, the deeply elegiac sixth, the virtuoso seventh and the last, a sort of musical rocking horse with petals falling all about it. That piece in particular takes some skills of coordination if it’s to come fully alive. With many pianists it doesn’t but the pianist under review is like a throwback to a golden era where mastery of inner voices, dynamics, subtle colouration, musical line, mood and design – whether in Kreisleriana or its companion pieces on this 86 minute CD (Blumenstück, Romanze No. 2, Andantino de Clara Wieck, Clara’s Variations on a theme by Robert (Op. 20) or Brahms’s Three Intermezzi Op. 117) – suggest a very special pedigree. Were I to overlay these superb recordings (they were made last year at Potton Hall in Suffolk) with a sheet of shellac (ie, ‘78’) surface noise then bend them with such vintage distorting sonic impediments as ‘wow’ and ‘flutter’ I might ask you to hazard a guess as to who is playing. Aside from Horowitz and Cortot, you might go for Rachmaninoff, Gieseking, Kempff or Solomon. All perhaps find a presence of sorts in the musical soul of BENJAMIN GROSVENOR, a pianist who for my money has no equal among his living rivals (Decca 485 3945, c£12.75). You might not like everything he does (most great players court similar levels of controversy), but he has a genuine voice and his recordings make a strong impression. You can’t forget them, and this remarkable recital is no exception.

SONG OF THE HIGH HEELS and other novelties

An extraordinary set crammed with rarities (Compositrices, ‘New Light on French Romantic Women Composers’ Blue Zane BZ2006, 8cds, c£41.00) features 21 composers, most of them all-but-unknown and all of them women, the standard of musical invention easily the equal of most men from any given period. Take the 18th century composer Hélène de Montgeroult, a pupil of Dussek and Clementi, whose 24-minute Piano Sonata in F Minor Op. 5 No. 2 (Mihály Berecz) is a model of elegance and tasteful invention, a real find. Cécile Chaminade, so long confined to domestic piano stools with a charming if faded morceau named Autumn, is represented by two striking orchestral works, a Concertino for Flute and Orchestra (Claire Le Boulanger), music full of fantasy and caprice, and the Callirhoé ballet suite (conductor David Reiland), its delightful ‘Pas des écharpes’ second movement scored with the utmost delicacy. Why don’t we hear it programmed alongside, say, Massenet, Delibes, Chabrier or Fauré?  And there’s Augusta Holmès, originally Anglo-Irish and a disciple of César Franck whose influence on her 15-minute tone poem Andromède (conductor Leo Hussain) is fairly obvious, and yet the piece arrives through the cipher of a notably individual voice. 

Louise Farrenc’s Symphony No. 3 (1847, David Reiland again) receives what by my calculations is its third recording but considering that it should by now be a standard repertory piece, that’s no bad thing. Past comparisons with Schumann and Mendelssohn have limited validity. I’d rather opt for the Swedish master Franz Berwald (1796-1868), another composer who tended to think ‘on the slant’. Farrenc like him, is nearly always slightly off-piste yet consistently gripping. The Introduction and ‘Chant de douleur’ from Marie Jaëll’s Oassiane (Hussain again, with soprano Anaïs Constans), is extremely dramatic, reminiscent perhaps of Liadov in epic mode. But for me the best prize among many is the Grande Fantasie-Quintette by the mystically-inclined Rita Strohl (Ismaël Margain [piano], with the Hanson Quartet), music fashioned just a few years after Franck’s Quintet and in many respects just as impressive. Between two sizeable outer movements (the finale is a quarter-hour set of variations) comes a Mendelssohnian scherzo and a whimsical ‘intermezzo’. 

The point that strikes me again and again about most of these composers is – if I may slip into the rather rude vernacular for a single phrase – that they ‘cut the crap’. Pomposity, bombast, quasi-philosophical posing, and expansionist excess are unknown to them. What they write is what they mean, nothing more and nothing less. The featured selections range over chamber music, orchestral works, piano pieces and songs. Performance standards are extremely high, and the recordings are superb. Given that concise but informed annotations are provided this has to be one of the most important CD sets of the last fifty years or so, and forget the ‘elephant in the room’ gender issue. This is for the most part quality music.

Yuja Wang’s ‘The American Project’, DG 486 4478, c£11.50 features two works written especially for her, an itchy post-Minimalist solo by Michael Tilson Thomas ‘You Come here Often’? Keep your ears peeled for an offstage a woolf whistle at 3:36. Not that I’m surprised given the image of Wang on the CD cover, posing provocatively on a backless chair, all legs and high heels. I spontaneously recalled the occasion years ago when at radio 3 a colleague mistakenly called Delius’s Song of the High Hills, his Song of the High Heels. A slip of the tongue then, but an apt description in this context. Abrams’s Concerto swings in and out of various modes, Westside Story one moment, naked boogie another, then mirroring John Adams before recalling either André Previn, Rachmaninov or Rhapsody in Blue. But this is no derivative mishmash, more a skateboard down memory lane, and an enjoyable one at that. Wang’s playing is stunning while Abrams has the Louisville Orchestra bop or swing with her. All I can do is sit back and envy them.

Moving back to terra firma pianist Peter Donohoe’s latest studio work includes a second volume of Mendelssohn Songs without Words (Chandos CHAN 20267, c£14.00), performances that capture the impulsiveness of Op. 85 No. 3, the skipping jollity of Op. 102 No. 3 (a piece for children) and the mellow poetry of the ‘Venetian Gondola Song’ (Op.30 No. 6), all of which – and much more – he focuses with his usual intelligence and feel for the musical moment. The programme opens with what is possible Mendelssohn’s greatest solo piano work, the Variations sérieuses, music memorably recorded years ago by Rachmaninov, Horowitz and Cortot, and it ends with a Mendelssohn perennial, the sparkling Scherzo from ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ as transcribed by Rachmaninov. This is a most winning programme, civilised, richly melodic, easy to listen to and realistically recorded. The equally recommendable Volume One is on CHAN20252.

Although composed during straitened circumstances and left unfinished Mozart’s Sonata No. 15 in F major (tailed, for practical purposes, by a Rondo in the same key) has always struck me as one of the masterpieces of the genre, principally because of the heavenly central Andante (nine minutes as played here by Donohoe), as much a song – or aria – without words as any of Mendelssohn’s, an inwardly dramatic, breathing entity filled with pathos, music that modulates from key to key as if driven to transform by some mystical outside force. Donohoe is bountiful in his expressive reportage (on Mozart Piano Sonatas, Vol 5, SOMM SOMMCD 0648, c£10.00) and the same CD also contains two further sonata masterpieces, No. 13 in B flat and No. 3 in the same key (which sounds much later than it is). If you’re about to teach these pieces you couldn’t do better than choose Donohoe as a model interpreter.