Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Monday, 28 February 2011

Rheinberger Organ Concertos Bleicher Boyd

Josef Gabriel RHEINBERGER (1839–1901)
Concertos for Organ and Orchestra
Concerto No.2 Op.177 (1894) [23:03]
Three Pieces for Violoncello and Organ [13:36]
Concerto No.1 Op.137 (1884) [21:07]
Stefan Johannes Bleicher (organ); Cäcilia Chmel (cello)
Musikkollegium Winterthur/Douglas Boyd
rec. Stadtkirche Winterthur, 1-3 February 2010. Stereo/Surround DDD/DSD.

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Josef Gabriel Rheinberger was a native of Lichtenstein, so it’s not surprising that his music shows the influence of both the German and the French traditions. In fact, he spent most of his adult life in Munich, which by the end of the 19th century had become established as a centre for catholic church music. Even so, much of the organ writing here recalls Franck or Saint-Saëns; it has that flowing quality that typifies so much French organ music of the time. On the other hand, these works, and the Second Concerto in particular, are founded on rigorous German thematicism, and the epic qualities of many of the tuttis come straight down the line from Beethoven via Brahms.

The Second Concerto opens the programme, and is the most engaging and convincing of the works on the disc. The three note motif on which the first movement is based is the same as the opening notes of the Enigma Variations, not that I'm suggesting direct influence on Elgar. It's a completely different sort of work anyway. Despite its scale, it is curiously modest in the use of resources. The orchestra includes woodwind and brass, but most of the textures involve string accompaniments to the solo organ. Given the size of the organ, the registrations used are also modest. Getting the balance right in music like this must be a nightmare. They do manage it, but you often get the feeling that the organ has been subdued because of the small string section, which I assume is an economy rather than a period feature.

Three pieces for cello and organ are slotted between the two concertos. Tables are turned here, and the organ becomes the accompaniment rather than the soloist. The music is pleasant but not particularly distinctive. It is worth listening to though for the cello playing by Cäcilia Chmel, who puts everything into the performance, a real solo turn.

The First Concerto is, if anything, even more modest than the second. The orchestra is made up of strings and horns, but you really have to listen hard for the latter. This earlier work finds Rheinberger approaching the combination of organ and orchestra from a different angle. So rather than sustained textures from both, we more often find block chords in the organ decorated with cascading string figures. There are also more unaccompanied organ solos, which is another legitimate approach to the potential ensemble problems.

These works are very much of their time, which is something you can't necessarily take for granted at the end of the 19th century. There are very few allusions to baroque technique, a few brass chorales here and there in the Second Concerto, and some development by sequences in the first. Nor is the aesthetic forward-looking in any real way.

The result is satisfying if comfortable listening, and the performers are happy for it to remain so. Douglas Boyd doesn't add any extra contrasts of dynamics or articulation to the few he finds in the score. The orchestra itself play well, although I doubt they are particularly challenged by this music. And organist Stefan Johannes Bleicher is similarly modest, especially given the resources at his disposal. A case could equally be made for bringing the organ right to the front of the mix – they are organ concertos after all – but this more even balance surely benefits the music more.

The SACD audio is good, although again there isn't much here to pick out in terms of orchestral detail or contrapuntal complexity. Instead the recording aims for, and achieves, those alternative virtues of high definition audio: atmosphere and presence, and never to the detriment of the detail, such as it is.

Gavin Dixon

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International:

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Bach Organ Works David Hamilton

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Organ Works
Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 645 [3:49]
Passacaglia in C minor, BWV 582 [13:19]
Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott, BWV 721 [4:36]
Pièce d'Orgue, BWV 572 [9:02]
O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß, BWV 622 [5:15]
Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C major, BWV 564 [17:41]
Dies sind die heil'gen zehn Gebot', BWV 678 [5:41]
Prelude and Fugue in E flat major, BWV 552 [15:19]
David Hamilton (organ)
rec. The Canongate Kirk, Edinburgh, February 2010. Stereo. DDD
DIVINE ART DDA25088 [75:39]

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David Hamilton is clearly a fine organist, but there's no doubt that the instrument is the real star of this disc. It was built by Th. Frobenius of Copenhagen in 1998 and is in tip-top condition. Like the kirk itself, the organ isn't big, just two manuals and a registration that fits comfortably on half a page of the liner notes, but this is definitely a case of small is beautiful.

It is much more common to meet discs of popular Bach selections played on huge cathedral organs, but what this organ lacks in power it makes up for in the precision of the sound and the subtle combinations of the tone colours. Hamilton avoids the temptation to concentrate solely on the small-scale works and includes two of the behemoths: the Passacaglia in C minor BWV582  nd the Prelude and Fugue in E flat major BWV 552. The Passacaglia in particular sounds great at this chamber music scale, and all sorts of contrapuntal devices and inner lines become apparent that larger organs usually obscure.

Clarity and evenness of tone are the main virtues of this instrument, and of Hamilton's registration choices - just because there are less stops to pull, that doesn't make the decisions any easier. In the Adagio second movement of the Toccata in C minor BWV564 the voicing of the individual notes of the melody is immaculate. The opening movement also benefits from the clean, well defined sound, and the grace notes in the main theme are actually heard as pitches, another detail that is often lost on larger organs. There isn't much in the way of mutation or colouristic devices in the registration. The only piece to use a more constrained, nasal stop is O Mensch BWV678, and even that has a relatively open tone.

Hamilton is quite conservative in his use of ornaments and his rubato is either non-existent or so subtle as to be imperceptible. The result is a series of very clean interpretations, an approach ideally matched to the tone and scale of the instrument.

The sound quality is good, and it seems that the organ and the acoustic are ideally matched. There is very little resonance - for a church I mean - but enough to give the organ sound a satisfying warmth. The bass in the recording is excellent, clear and focused and not artificially amplified, or at least not obviously so. The bottom end of the organ is actually quite meagre, the pedals have two 8' stops and two 16', but that's plenty, even for the Passacaglia.

An enjoyable disc then, and not your usual Bach greatest hits. This may be the absolute core of the organ repertoire, but it does have a tendency to bring out the worst excesses of megalomania in professional organists. David Hamilton demonstrates how a little humility can go a long way.

Gavin Dixon

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International:

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Bach, Schnittke: Goldberg Variations, String Trio

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations BWV988 (transcribed for string trio Goldberg Trio Lucerne) [41:35]
Alfred SCHNITTKE (1934-1998)
String Trio [26:33]
Goldberg Trio Lucerne (Ina Dmitrova (violin); Annette Bartholdy (viola); Matta Zappa (cello))
rec. Radiostudio Zurich, 30 March-1 April 2009. Stereo. DDD
GUILD GMCD7350 [68:06]

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The primary motivation for this Goldberg Variations recording seems to be a desire to save the work from the excesses of Glenn Gould, at least by proxy. A string trio arrangement of the work already exists. It is by Dmitry Sitkovetsky and was written in the wake of Gould's monumental first recording. In homage to the Canadian pianist, Sitkovetsky even goes as far as to transcribe the ornaments as they appear on the recording.

The Goldberg Trio Lucerne are understandably sceptical of the artistic value of this approach and have made their own arrangement. Where Sitkovetsky transcribes ornaments, they are more inclined to omit them altogether unless necessary. They are also committed to reducing doubling and what the liner-notes describes as 'octavations', presumably working on the assumption that Bach's contrapuntal textures are more than capable of standing up for themselves without any added textural support.

The result is predictably ascetic, but the textures never seem undernourished, or indeed less than you could expect from a harpsichord. Despite their stated desire to move away from Gould, they share his approach of playing the aria without emotion so as to contrast it with the variations that follow. And each of the variations is played with its own distinctive identity and with a clear understanding of the genre to which each alludes. The slow movements are also played with a minimum of expression, and at slow tempos. The result is invariably both plaintive and elegant. The faster movements have real energy, although few are as fast as in Gould's recording.

By not resorting to doublings, the playing of the individual players becomes much more apparent. That makes stylistic unity between the players all the more important, and on the whole they manage to match their vibrato and dynamics well. There are one or two points where the players struggle with just the sheer quantity of notes, the 26th Variation, for example, contains some slightly shaky passage work. But on the whole it is an assured performance and an excellent first recording of what is sure to be a much performed arrangement.

The Schnittke String Trio is a curious coupling. The composer has benefited a lot over the years from the assumption that his music can fit with standard repertoire works simply because it contains brief tonal or modal passages in the form of allusions to earlier works or styles. That only applies up to a point, I think, but you don't have to dig too far beneath the surface before spiritual links between the music of Bach and Schnittke begin to appear. The B-A-C-H monogram makes a number of appearances in the work too, suggesting further connections to the baroque composer, despite the overriding Romantic/Modernist aesthetic.

Another connection is the fact that, like the Goldberg Variations, the Trio begins and ends with passages of very simple music, which contrast the complexity of what comes between. This time the players are slightly more emotive in their opening phrase, using more vibrato than many others, although still not much.

From then on it is an impressively impassioned account, with lots of swooping string lines and impressive dynamic contrasts. The balance is not ideal, and much of the first movement in particular could do with more cello, although I think this is a function of the recording rather than a performance issue. Much of the second movement is very quiet with long pedal notes seemingly drifting off into infinity. This is beautifully played, and the intense atmosphere that these players achieve with so few notes is remarkable.

An impressive recording then, with an ascetic Bach reading contrasted with a full-blooded interpretation of the Schnittke. The logic behind the coupling is tenuous, but at least it gives us an opportunity to hear these two fine and distinctive performances. I doubt that the Goldberg Trio Lucerne are going to convert any die-hard Glenn Gould obsessives, but they might just find a few new fans for music of Alfred Schnittke.

Gavin Dixon 

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International:

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Beethoven Violin Sonatas Radulovic Manoff

Beethoven: Violin Sonatas Nos. 5 (Spring), 7 and 8
Nermanja Radulovic violin
Susan Manoff piano

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Lyricism and simple elegance are the order of the day in this recording of Beethoven sonatas from Nermanja Radulovic and Susan Manoff. The tone they adopt for most of the movements is one of lightness and grace, making the whole experience very pleasant from beginning to end.
The two players really are equal partners in every respect here. The piano is recorded at about the same level, and sometimes even above, the violin. This means that the duet textures between the piano right hand and the violin work very well indeed. It does mean that Radulovic sometimes has to struggle to maintain the foreground in the some of the louder passages, but that's a small price to pay.
The recordings were made live, and the concert hall atmosphere is a real asset. The acoustic is warm yet precise, and it really benefits the piano, although the violin has less of an aura.
Radulovic plays with a lively tone, his vibrato is modest and judiciously applied. I find his timbre at the top a little shrill, especially in the louder passages, although Beethoven rarely goes up there anyway. There are one or two slightly shaky intonation moments, consequences no doubt of the live recording, but most are fairly minor. The only real howler is the penultimate note of the 8th Sonata, which in the excitement of the moment ends up wide of the mark. However, judging by the rapturous applause that follows, the audience on the night were more than willing to forgive that single slip.
More of a concern for me is the lack of weight in some of these movements. Radulovic and Manoff have the ideal approach when it comes to the Spring Sonata, nothing there is ever laboured or unduly ponderous. But when they get to the 8th Sonata (Op.30 no.3), the music, especially of the first movement, cries out for more muscular treatment. There are only a few passages where real heft is appropriate, but it is necessary to balance the lighter textures elsewhere. Without it the whole work seems less consequential than it could be.
So, an approach then, that seems more suited to the early sonatas than the late. It is probably just as well that the Kreutzer is not included here, but there would certainly be scope for these players to approach the earlier sonatas in this elegant, attractive style. And I wonder if they have played the Mozart sonatas together? Surely they must have. I could imagine this duo really coming into their own with him.
Gavin Dixon

Monday, 21 February 2011

Beethoven Concertos Sudbin Vänskä

Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 4 and 5
Yevgeny Sudbin piano
Minnesota Orchestra
Osmo Vänskä conductor
BIS-SACD-1758 [70:27]

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Yevgeny Sudbin and Osmo Vänskä are ideally matched Beethoven interpreters. Both understand the importance of detail, and of finding the inner beauty in every single phrase or counterpoint. But those are not really the priories for either of them, as both are more interested in the bigger picture, in the monumental architecture and the symphonic dimension of the both the orchestral and the piano parts.
The result is heavyweight Beethoven. The Minnesota Orchestra field a large string section and everyone, including Sudbin, seems comfortable to take the dynamics up to some quite awesome levels. Given the technical expertise of everybody involved, this is never a problem, the balance is always finely judged and the tone from the orchestra is always elegant.
But nothing is ever excessive, at least not in my opinion. Sudbin has a distinctively Russian touch, everything is definite, confident and well-defined, and that applies just as much to the pianissimos as it does to the robust tuttis. His rubato is also definite, but is always discrete. And the sheer lyricism of his playing endears every single phrase. Beethoven often fills up the textures with scales and other non-melodic devices, but Sudbin infuses such beauty even into these that they take on melodic potential. And while his playing has plenty of drama, he never labours the set pieces, for example the segue into finale of the Emperor has that sense of fast growing expectation, but both the dynamics and tempo are kept stable until the theme kicks in.
The technical side of this recording complements the style of performance, giving plenty of resonance and space for the big-boned textures to unfold. Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis makes its presence felt in the audible decay, especially to the piano sound, but the engineering has been carefully balanced to ensure this does not compromise the detail. The balance between the piano and the orchestra is also impressive. The piano is always at the front of the texture, but you never get the feeling that.
The mix feels bass-heavy, especially in the strings. Given the commitment of BIS to natural sound reproduction, this may well be the result of the size of the string section. But the timpani is surprisingly heavy too. That's not really a complaint, but it is probably a result of the fact that the team has just finished a Beethoven symphony cycle, and plans to maintain a symphonic soundscape for these concerto recordings.
Of all the concertos in the repertoire, these two are probably the best candidates for that sort of treatment, so the results make excellent musical sense. It might not be to everybody's taste though, especially those who prefer a period instrument sound, or even a chamber orchestra sound. To those people, I'd recommend the recent recording of the Fourth Concerto by Dejan Lazić and the Australian Chamber Orchestra (Channel Classics CCS SA 305 11), which is as good as this in every way (including the SACD audio) but is the exact opposite in terms of interpretation issues. To everyone else, I heartily recommend this. The performers, pianist, orchestra and conductor alike, all have enviable reputations when it comes to Beethoven, reputations that this recording can only enhance.
Gavin Dixon

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Rimsky-Korsakov Scheherazade Dutoit

Nikoai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Scheherazade Op.35 [45:44]
Russian Easter Festival Overture [15:33]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Charles Dutoit conductor
Recorded at Henry Wood Hall, London 25-26 April 2010 Stereo DDD
ONYX 4064 [60:88]

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Charles Dutoit is an old fashioned sort of conductor, in a good way I mean, he's somebody who pays attention to details and makes sure he gets the most from his musicians. And unlike some his his younger colleagues, he is not a conductor who strives for excitement at the expense of every other musical virtue. He can usually deliver the excitement as well, but when the energy drops, as it occasionally does on this disc, we are left admiring the high quality of the orchestral playing but in something of a musical vacuum.
The first movement suffers this the most. All the notes are there, and it isn't particularly slow. But there is a lack drive in many of the passages. All of the abrupt tempo changes are perfectly executed, but there is rarely much enthusiasm for the follow-on section when it has been established. The second movement too could do with a bit more oomph. Admittedly, Rimsky-Korsakov doesn't really write this as a high energy scherzo, but it could still do with a little more zest than here.
That apart, this is a good recording. The energy certainly picks up in the finale, and I've no complaints at all about the Russian Easter Festival Overture. The RPO play well, although they are not quite managing the same top standards as other London orchestras at the moment. The string sound is a little course, and the tuning in brass often leaves much to be desired. On the other hand, the woodwind section puts in an excellent performance, with real character to their various solos and ensembles.
I sense a tension between the violin soloist Clio Gould and Dutoit. All the violin solos are interpreted very freely, with lashings of rubato and some wonderfully distinctive phrase shaping. But then the orchestra comes in and everything immediately settles down to an even conformity. They evidently have different ideas about the piece, and the violin solos often sound like they have been transplanted from somewhere else. That's not necessarily a fault, in fact it fits quite neatly into the narrative, with the wilful Scheherazade getting her own way, and achieving independence (or at least survival) on her own terms.
The sound quality is good. There is detail in the orchestral sound, although this being RK there could always be room for more. The packaging includes three different photographs of the orchestra playing at the Festival Hall, which is somewhat deceptive given that this recording was made at the Henry Wood Hall. But the acoustic there is better anyway, and it certainly benefits the audio.
So, a good Scheherazade and an excellent Russian Easter Festival. This is not quite vintage Dutoit, but it is a recording that benefits from his many years of experience. As I mentioned, he is a conductor who really knows how to get the best out of an orchestra, and his continuing association with the RPO can only work in their favour. My only real objection is that the first movement in particular is a bit limp, but the later movements of the symphony and the overture at the end are all magnificent.
Gavin Dixon

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International:

Monday, 14 February 2011

Monteverdi Vespers OAE Howarth

Monteverdi Vespers
The Choir and Orchestra of the Enlightenment
Conductor: Robert Howarth
Recorded live at Kings Place, London (August 2010)
SIGCD237 (2 CDs)

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2010 marked the 400th anniversary of the publication of Monteverdi's Vespers, which for the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment was the ideal excuse to spend the year touring with the work. This recording was made at the end of the tour, partly to document what the orchestra had been up to and also to launch their new own label – OAE Released.
If there is one crucial lesson about the Vespers to be learnt from this recording it must surely be that the work does not belong to John Eliot Gardiner. Having said that, given the ubiquity of Gardiner's recording it is to the credit of Robert Howarth and his OAE forces (many of whom played on that earlier recording) that this is not a radical departure from Gardiner either. There are differences certainly, but like Gardiner, Howarth strives throughout to combine contrapuntal detail with flowing lyrical melody.
The biggest difference between the two recordings is the acoustic, and the sound of Hall One at Kings Place, warm as it is, differs radically from that of St Mark's Basilica. Howarth makes the point in the liner notes that both acoustics are appropriate; Monteverdi wrote the Vespers before his move to Venice and for a smaller chapel. However, he also revived them when working St. Mark's, so he would have had personal experience of the work in both contexts. The major benefit of the dryer acoustic is that the detail of the orchestral sound is never compromised by the resonance. The continuo in particular is a constantly audible presence, which really helps to clarify the musical structure of many of the movements. The playing and singing are excellent throughout, and the recording clearly benefits from the repeated performances the group gave of the work in the months before the recording. As well as the continuo group, the upper strings deserve a special mention, as do the almost impossibly virtuosic cornetto group.
Howarth does away with the plainchant introductions to the movements, a decision that makes perfect musical sense to me, although those of a more theological bent may disagree. The Magnificat is included as the filler on the second disc, and I'd much rather hear that than the plainchant between the Vespers movements. Generally speaking, the tempos are quite relaxed, yet the music retains its momentum through the concentration on line by each of the players. The dryer acoustic could accommodate some faster tempos, which might have been interesting, albeit on an experimental basis, although in the longrun, the more disciplined speeds here are probably the more sensible option.
The arrangement of the choir is interesting. Howarth explains that the original parts are for voices with very wide tessitura. He speculates that Monteverdi was looking for a very particular sound that he could only achieve by stretching the singers beyond their normal range, especially at the top. In an attempt to recreate this, Howarth pairs up singers of adjacent voice groups ie soprano/mezzo, mezzo/alto etc. and has these pairs sing the original parts. In these times of austerity for renaissance choral music, the fact that more than one voice sings each part may be controversial, as may the use of women's voices. To my ear, it all adds up, because the detailed yet varied sound of the choir is the perfect complement to the sound of the orchestra. And the use of ladies voices is fully vindicated by the sheer quality of the voices in question.
If there is one thing I miss about 'Gardiner Vespers Sound' when listening to this, it is that monumental quality that he often draws from the larger choruses. That is partly a result of the combination of large choir, doubling choral lines in the orchestra, and the basilica acoustic. However, it is also something that Gardiner fosters by dwelling on those huge, warm harmonies. Howarth tries a bit of that too, but at this smaller scale it remains little more than an aspiration.
Otherwise though this is an excellent recording, and an auspicious start to the OAE Released project. Quite how this label will develop is hard to anticipate at this stage. They are not yet making much of an effort to separate its identity from that of the parent label Signum, but when they do, it will be interesting to see if they market these CDs as creatively as they do their live events.
Gavin Dixon

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Humperdinck Hansel und Gretel Karajan

Engelbert HUMPERDINCK (1854-1921)
Hänsel und Gretel (1890-93)
Elisabeth Grümmer (mezzo) Hansel; Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano) Gretel; Else Schürhoff (mezzo) The Witch; Maria von Ilosvay (mezzo) Mother; Josef Metternich (baritone) Father; Anny Felbermayer (soprano) Sandman, Dew Fairy;
Loughton High School for Girls Choir; Bancroft School Choir
Philharmonia Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan.
Recorded 27, 29 and 30 June 1953, Kingsway Hall, London mono ADD
EMI 50999 6 40716 2 6 [63:37+44:43](CD Rom containing synopsis and libretto)

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To describe Karajan's Hänsel und Gretel as the benchmark recording is almost to state the obvious. Its quality, both in terms of the performance and the recording, more than justify that status, and its perennial place in the catalogue may well explain why so few competitors have appeared in the intervening almost 60(!) years.
Looking at the organisations and personalities that were involved in the original recording, it is hardly surprising that something of enduring was created. You've got Schwarzkopf at the height of her powers, the Philharmonia in a period when they were easily London's hottest orchestra. Karajan's legacy of operatic recordings is not unblemished, but there is no doubt that the best of it was the result collaborations with Walter Legge and the Philharmonia.
Like their other great triumph, the 1956 Rosenkavalier, the Hänsel und Gretel seems to have been the result of some very relaxed recording sessions. Much of both operas were recorded in single takes, and there is a spontaneity here that live recordings today so often try, and so often fail, to emulate. Karajan had never conducted the work before, and there is an almost childlike curiosity to the way he teases details out of the orchestral textures.
Mike Ashman, in his fascinating but brief liner notes, opines that Karajan goes for a more Straussian than Wagnerian sound, and that the musical focus is always on soloists in the orchestra, and on unmediated song, as opposed to aria, presentation from the singers. That's very true, but the balance between simplicity and sophistication in the singing of every major role is complex and fascinating. For example, Elisabeth Grümmer and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, as Hansel and Gretel respectively, both sing with a child-like exuberance, and both bring endearing enthusiasm to the birdcalls and folksongs. But there is also plenty of vibrato in both voices, and there is never any suggestion that either is trying to sound child-like in their sound production. Else Schürhoff is great as the witch, but also very tasteful. It's a role you could ham up much more if you were going for the pantomime angle, although I'm not sure Karajan would approve.
Much has been made over the years of the high quality of the recorded sound, and if you didn't know, you would be unlikely to guess that the recording was made in 1953, and in mono. The singers are extremely well served by the sound, as are most of the orchestral soloists. The tuttis often sound a little distant and muted, but there is a surprising clarity to all the orchestral textures. And what fabulous orchestral playing! There is real character to all of the wind and brass solos, and the ensemble in the strings is first rate.
This reissue is not the only one on the market, nor is it the cheapest. EMI no longer have exclusive rights to the recording, meaning that anybody with access to the masters can issue it. There is a very reasonably priced version on Naxos, who have their own remastering team, so you can expect some slight differences in audio presentation. EMI, for their part, have come up with an interesting extra, the libretto as a pdf on a supplementary CD. Whether or not that will appease the many opera fans who regularly bemoan the lack of librettos in budget opera sets I can't say, but it is a nice touch. Of course, if you are already in front of a computer, finding the libretto on the internet is hardly difficult. Also, given the unused space on the CD, there would surely be room here to include the score as a pdf, and at no further expense considering that it too is out of copyright.
A modern makeover, then, for an old favourite. EMI are at something of a turning point in their history just now, and if reissues like this can help to keep the company afloat, then they are certainly to be welcomed. Of course, the record industry has changed beyond all recognition since 1953, making the continual appearance of this recording in the catalogues one of its few enduring certainties. No doubt, EMI will continue to reissue it in various forms for as long as the company exists. If this did end up being their last version of it, then they've certainly done the recording justice with some handsome packaging. There is no doubt that it will continue to appear again and again as the years go by. The only question is, how long will the red square logo continue to appear in the top right-hand corner?
Gavin Dixon

Friday, 11 February 2011

ELISION Ensemble: Transference, Strange Forces

Transference: works by Liza Lim, Bryn Harrison, Mary Bellamy, Aaron Cassidy
Strange Forces: works by Liza Lim, Richard Barrett, Klaus K. Hübler, Evan Johnson, Aaron Cassidy and Timothy McCormack
ELISION Ensemble HCR02CD (Transference) and HCR03CD (Strange Forces)

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The recent death of Milton Babbitt deprived university-based new music of its most high profile advocate. Babbitt argued that university music departments should become sanctuaries for new music, which was unlikely to be welcomed or understood elsewhere. It's a view that has been hotly debated over the years, with most university-based composers considering the idea counterproductive. But the first of these two CDs demonstrates an entirely different benefit that academia can bring to contemporary composition, namely integrated support through the processes of creation, performance, recording and dissemination.
The liner notes, informative as they are, are a little reticent about the events behind the recordings. But from what I can make out, the Australian ELISION ensemble visited the University of Huddersfield for some sort of residency. All of the works bar one were created as part of that. The ensemble then performed and recorded the works in London and Bremen, presumably with the financial support of the university. The recordings were then chosen for the inaugural release of a new music record label, also run by the university.
The coherency of this approach is to be commended, and the stability that it affords can only be to the benefit of the creative process. It should come as no surprise that the aesthetic of the resulting music is also fairly consistent. That's not to say that it all sounds the same, rather that the composers involved are all addressing the same musical issues, while each retaining their own individual voice.
The event that spawned the music was called 'Performing the body', and it is fair to say that notions of the corporeal or the bodily underpin many of the works. Various extended performing techniques are used to translate the physical make-up of each of the instruments into representative sound. So in the opening track, Liza Lim's Invisibility, very guttural, woody sounds are produced, in part through the use of a 'guiro' bow, on which the hair is wound round the wood. And there are all sorts of harmonic sounds in which the physical material of the over-wound strings becomes the focus. There is nothing transcendental about these sounds, they are rather an illustration and even celebration of the prosaic facts of their own origins.
For me, the most interesting track on the disc is surface forms (repeating) by Bryn Harrison. Here again, notions of transcendence and sublimation are studiously avoided in favour of a focus on the minutae of the surface level textures. It seems, and I may be wrong, that the work employs just a handful of pitch classes, which the instruments and mezzo soprano voice circle around. Yet the surface of the music is relatively complex, always changing and always interesting. The result is a paradoxical situation where the surface level textures seem always to allude to deeper things within the music, yet that deeper level just isn't there. And the music always sounds like it wants to move on, yet is stuck in this one place.
The second half of the disc is dominated by three works by Aaron Cassidy. His And the scream, Bacon's scream, is the operation through which the entire body escapes through the mouth (or, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of the Crucifixion) is for a mixed ensemble of eight players. The idea of a scream fits well into the general theme of the bodily made audible, and as the Bacon reference in the title suggests, the approach is both subtle and visceral. It is mostly made up of busy lines from the various instruments, often muted or otherwise artificially subdued. The lines seem largely independent, apart from on occasions where an outburst from one of the instruments provokes indignant responses from the others.
The second disc Strange Forces continues along similar lines. The main difference is the instrumentation, strings and woodwind dominate in Transference, while Strange Forces showcases music, mostly by the same composers, but for trumpet and trombone. Actually, that is simplifying things, the two players perform on five different instruments, including the quarter-tone flugelhorn and the alto trombone. They are also joined by a third player for the final work, Disfix by Timothy McCormack, who plays various clarinets.
The tone is again set by Liza Lim with Wild Winged One, a trumpet solo, which like her cello solo on the previous disc, includes a wide range of playing effects that highlight the physical realities of the sound production.
The second track is a work called Aurora by Richard Barrett, but those with an allergy to New Complexity need not fear. This is certainly a complex score, but the there is daylight between the phrases, and there is little of the obsessive maximalism that characterises his larger scores. The relationship between the two instruments (quarter-tone flugelhorn and alto trombone) is fascinating, in that they seem to follow each other around the stave. It is not imitation in the traditional sense, more like strong mutual influence. And the composer has clearly worked very closely with the performers to exploit the timbral palates of their two unusual instruments.
Richard Barrett's involvement in this project raises the question of the influence of New Complexity on the other composers represented. The music on these two discs is clearly not New Complexity as such, it is much more open in its textures and much more approachable in general, but the long shadow of Brian Ferneyhough hangs over it all the same. None of this music is contrapuntal in the traditional sense, but there is a linearity here which owes a debt to the New Complexity school. Then there is the use of instrumental timbre and extended performing techniques, not for purely colouristic aims, as in Polish Sonorism, but rather to find new ways of allowing the mechanics of instrumental technique to keep pace with the endless invention of the composer's imagination. Perhaps New Complexity is dead, or at least dying, and the music here represents its most direct successor. Time will tell.
Both of these discs, and Strange Forces in particular, owe their success at every level to the virtuosity of the performers. Considering the amount of avant-garde trumpet and trombone music that was written in the 1960s and 70s, you'd think there was nothing left to say. But the sheer virtuosity of Tristram Williams (on trumpet) and Benjamin Marks (trombone) has opened up whole new vistas for the composers they work with. Similarly with the other members of the ELISION Ensemble on Transference, and special mention should go to cellist Séverine Wright and oboist Peter Veale.
Tim Rutherford-Johnson provides useful and informative liner notes to both CDs, so kudos to him, and also to whoever it was in Huddersfield who had the foresight to hire him for the job. One good point that he makes is that many of these works are dependant of a good acoustic to have their proper effect. I'd extend that point to the quality of the reproduction in audio recording. As listeners to the recording, we are at an automatic disadvantage, especially as so many of the works celebrate the close connection between the sound and the physical means of sound production. Fortunately, then, the audio reproduction on both CDs is excellent and does full justice to the wide array of sound colours and dynamics employed. An excellent start for the HCR record label project, and I look to hearing their future instalments.
Gavin Dixon

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Beethoven 9 BRSO Mariss Jansons

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No.9 Op.125 in D minor ‘Choral’
Krassimira Stoyanova soprano
Lioba Braun alto
Michael Schade tenor
Michael Volle bass
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
Mariss Jansonss conductor
Recorded live at the Paul VI Audience Hall, Vatican, 27 October 2007 DDD/DSD Stereo/Surround
BR Klassik 900108 [66:19]

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This SACD records a significant event in the history of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, a performance before a papal audience no less. The Pope is himself Bavarian, of course, so spending state broadcaster's money on the jolly isn't quite as profligate as it might first appear. And whatever the politics and logistics behind the event, they treated him to a cracking performance of the Choral Symphony. There are plenty of recordings of the piece on disc, but this one easily holds its own in the face of almost any competition.
Unlike some conductors today, Mariss Janons goes for steady speeds in most of the music. That can lead to a lack of propulsion, but never to a lack of intensity or involvement. The sheer quality of the playing the emotional engagement of every single player, no doubt sharpened by the occasion, make this a very special performance indeed. So often, the practice of recording concerts live for orchestras' own labels can seem a mere financial convenience, but this recording demonstrates how it can really work to benefit the result. There is a sense of atmosphere in every single bar that you could only get from a live performance, and a top notch one at that. Mariss Jansons has been doing these live recordings for a few years now, and not just with the BRSO, and he really knows how much he can rely on that atmosphere. So those slower tempos, especially in the first movement, they work because he does not need to relentlessly drive the orchestra on to get the energy he needs. And there is never any suggestion of laziness or letting up of emotional intensity. He even resists racking up the tempo and dynamics in the coda of the first movement, and he gets away with that too. Instead of the usual rush for the double bar, we hear the individual notes of the string scales and the round, almost understated intensity of the woodwind chords. Of course, he does go for it in the Coda of the finale, but his restraint up to that point only makes those final bars all the more intense.
The interpretation of the finale here is quite a complex business. Jansons is clearly intent on expressing more with this music than a mere 'Ode to Joy'. His reading of the finale is filled with darker undertones, which like in the preceding movements often result from the combination of steady tempos and crystal clarity in the orchestral textures. Whatever Jansons adds interpretively to the finale (and ultimately it is up to the listener to find their own interpretations of his revisionist approach) there is a continual sense of furrowed-brow conviction that prevents the listener from taking anything at face value. The liner note quotes Bekker, Adorno and other 20th century musical luminaries to demonstrate the necessity of this sort of approach in the modern world. And it is hard to question that necessity without resorting to an ontology of music based in pure escapism.
So it is a reading to make you think about, as much as enjoy, the music. Don't get me wrong though, it is an enjoyable listen too. The sound quality is very good, another reason recommend this over most Beethoven 9s. Bavarian Radio took their own team to the Vatican, and the result is almost the equal of their recent BR Klassik recordings from Munich. But unlike Munich's Philharmonie am Gasteig, the Paul VI Audience Hall is not a dedicated concert hall, so the acoustics are inevitably inferior. In fact, given the gargantuan size of the hall (only part of which is actually in the Vatican City) the engineers have done an impressive job. The clarity of the string sound is particularly good, as is the intensity of the choral sound. The woodwind and brass sections perform as well as any I've heard on a Beethoven 9 recording, and the audio does them full justice. (Incidentally, that solemn tone that Jansons maintains throughout the finale is not compromised by the contrabassoon passage towards the end, and while it usually sounds quite flatulent, the player here manages a focussed and dark tone.)
So, you don't have to be a Catholic to enjoy this recording, nor do you need to know anything about the circumstances of its performance, which is just as well because the liner notes don't go into very much detail. It is a thoroughly modern Beethoven 9 though, and one that takes nothing for granted. Jansons yet again demonstrates the deep intellect behind his conducting approach, and like many of his BR Klassik recordings to date, the result is a distinctive and deeply felt reading that presents one of the most well-known works in the repertoire in a surprising new light.
Gavin Dixon

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International:

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Tchaikovsky Complete Piano Works Trabucco

Pyotr Il'yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Complete Piano Works
Franco Trabucco piano
Recorded live at the Genoa N. Paganini Conservatory 21,28 September, 5,12, 19 October, 9,16 November 2007 Stereo DDD
Dyanmic CDS 665/1-7 [73:15+78:26+61:12+53:51+71:57+72:11+76:16]

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I've mixed feelings about this set, but I think that is as much because of the repertoire as of the performance. Tchaikovsky was an industrious composer, but when his inspiration ran dry, he would often resolve to write one piano piece a day, just to keep his hand in. Thankfully, those resolutions never lasted long, and the results of them were often humdrum at best.
That said, there are a handful of favourites among Tchaikovsky's solo piano works, the 'Grand Sonata' Op.37 is one, as is 'The Seasons' Op.37a. His 'Album for the Young' is well known to many formerly aspiring prodigies, and in fact it is among his best works for the piano. Among his other solo piano works, the favoured genre is the 'Morceau', and opuses entitled 'Morceaux' account for about half of the music here. As the name implies, these are usually short, unambitious salon-type pieces. Of course, Tchaikovsky was a composer of refined tastes and an expert in maintaining an audience's interest. So there is plenty of variety, but no extremes, very little drama, and not much passion either.
Those problems are all exacerbated by Franco Trabucco's approach. He seems to have little interest in stretching the music beyond its comfort zone, so for the most part these performances are civilised and straight-laced. It may be that he is being faithful to the spirit of the music, but I can't help the feeling that he would do it more favours if he injected a bit more passion now and then.
The movements that come across best are the ones where Tchaikovsky is going for a laid back, breezy atmosphere. That accounts for a good many of the 'Morceaux', as well as some of the Seasons, most notably January. In these movements, Trabucco and Tchaikovsky seem to agree on the exact level on nonchalance needed to carry the music. And there is a lightness of touch that Trabucco brings to these movements that brings a real sense of delicacy, if not sensitivity.
When the music gets more dramatic, the performances are less convincing. In the opening Morceau of Op.40, for example, the sheer quantity of notes suggests the composer is looking for real turbulence, but the performance is still in laid back mode and it never quite takes off. The grand exception is the Grand Sonata, which is performed with real energy, and with some insight into its bizarre lob-sided structure, which adds up in this performance, thanks in no small part to the sheer energy at the keyboard. The Album for the Young comes across well too. All those tiny vignettes, the funeral march, the organ grinder, the Orthodox chant, they are all played with real character, almost a Pictures at an Exhibition in miniature.
The recordings are all taken from live performances. There isn't a peep out of the audience though, so you'd need to be told to even realise they are present. On the other hand, there are a couple of issues with the recording that are clearly bi-products of the live environment. Once or twice, the tuning in the mid-range of the piano goes seriously awry, and unlike in a studio recording, stays like that until the end of the performance. There are a few technical slips in the playing too, mainly splits in the faster passages and slightly uneven runs.
But from a technical point of view, the biggest problem is the recorded sound. The piano and the acoustic seem to be at odds throughout, there is no depth to the sound of the bass register, and the treble sounds pretty thin as well. But worst of all, the piano sounds very distant. It just isn't a very engaging sound.
So not a recommendation from me for this set. Trabucco is at his best in the well-known works, particularly the Grand Sonata and The Seasons, and of all the discs in this set, those are the ones I would gravitate towards myself. But then, those are also the works that are best represented in the catalogue, and good as these performances are, they are at least a rung below those of Postnikova, Pletnev and Richter.
Gavin Dixon

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International:

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Higdon Tchaikovsky Concertos Hilary Hahn

Jennifer HIGDON (b.1962)
Violin Concerto [32:01]
Pyotr TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Violin Concerto in D minor Op.35 [36:17]
Hilary Hahn violin
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
Vasily Petrenko conductor
Recorded Liverpool Philharmonic Hall November 2008 (Tchaikovsky) and May 2009 (Higdon) DDD Stereo
Deutsche Grammaphon 477 8777 [68:16]

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There is so much of musical interest in Jennifer Higdon's Violin Concerto that it is difficult to pin down exactly what it was that endeared the work to the 2010 Pulitzer committee. It is a work of almost continuous invention. It also has impressive momentum and focus. The sound world, so far as is is possible to generalise, is American, and like most of her compatriots, Higdon is only ever a few stylistic steps away from Stravinsky. The music is reminiscent of John Adams, but with more edge and more drive than even he can muster. Repeated listening reveals that a wide array of percussion effects are used to underpin the many diverse textures. Impressively, though, most of these are very subtle, adding propulsion and colour to the orchestral textures from within.
As is probably obvious by now, I'm having a lot of trouble putting this work into words. Structurally it is in a fairly conventional concerto form, so that is at least one handle for listeners, but beyond that innovation is the key feature. The solo part is not overtly virutosic, although it is clearly very difficult. As with the orchestral writing, the solo line is all about exploring the timbral possibilities of the instrument, and combining them into a sweeping lyrical line. There is little tonality or modality here, yet the music always sounds like it is grounded in some sort of compositional theory, I'm just at a loss to describe exactly what it is.
The performance is excellent. The work is quite sectional, and Hilary Hahn is never fazed by the successive gear shifts and changes in style, dynamic and technique. There is something quite grounded and earthy about her tone that suits this music well. But there is plenty of variety in her sound too, an essential attribute in a work that depends so much on musical variety for its substance.
The Tchaikovsky too is given a solid and musically substantial reading. Hahn again plays with a rich, complex tone, but that doesn't mean that she is unable to sing in the more lyrical passages. She retains an impressive sense of control over the music, and there is little recourse to overt rubato or portamento. I love her vibrato in the Tchaikovsky, it is narrow, fast, and so subtle that you don't even realise it is there unless you listen in hard. The slow movement is a little faster than usual, and a bit more matter-of-fact than you might find elsewhere, but removing some of then traditional sentimentality does it the world of good.
I hardly need mention that Hahn's performance is technically note perfect, and the same goes for the orchestra. And while this disc is undoubtedly a feather in the soloist’s cap, it also joins a long and growing list of top quality recordings involving Vasily Petrenko and the RLPO. The orchestra take everything in Higdon's score in their stride, including a range of extended techniques. Just as impressively, it seems Petrenko resisted the temptation to devote the whole rehearsal time to the new work, as the orchestra also puts in an impressive performance in the Tchaikovsky. Special mention should go to the woodwind, who are on glowing form, and are magnificently served by the sound recording.
A good recording then on all fronts. Jennifer Higdon is not yet a household name over here, so perhaps America is the target market for this disc. I notice though that the London Philharmonic has recently released a recording of her Percussion Concerto, so it is probably just a matter of time. And of course, we are already familiar with the talents of Hahn, Petrenko and the RLPO, all of whom are on fine form here.
Gavin Dixon

This review first appeared at MusicWeb International:

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Rachmaninov Piano Works Jeremy Filsell

Rachmaninov: Music for Piano
Jeremy Filsell piano
Signum Classics SIGCD230

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There are plenty of Rachmaninov recital CDs on the market these days, but most are début albums from aspiring pianists, usually in their early 20s. Jeremy Filsell doesn't fit into that category, and it is clear from his performance that his aims with Rachmaninov are entirely different. The attraction of this music for younger pianists trying to establish a reputation is surely that Rachmaninov wears his virtuosity on his sleeve – it sounds as difficult to play as it is.
But Filsell demonstrates that there is far more to Rachmaninov than that. As both a pianist and an organist he has a reputation of making light of technical demands, so he has nothing to prove here. Instead he puts his copious keyboard skills to the service of the music. The result is a deeply poetic reading of these Rachmaninov favourites. The playing is precise and the interpretations are keenly focussed, yet there is no hint of dryness Rubato and pedalling are generously applied, but never to excess, and the melodic lines are always allowed to sing.
The Prelude in C sharp minor is given an appropriately atmospheric reading, with those sinister pianissimo chords in the opening passage loaded with anticipation for what is to come. And when the music does take off, it becomes clear that Filsell is a more moderate and level-headed interpreter of this work than many, including the composer himself. Many of the other works give that impression too, as if Filsell has retained the passion in Rachmaninov but avoided the neurosis.
Between this and the concluding Second Sonata, we are treated to two song transcriptions and the Op.23 and Op.32 Preludes. That all makes for a satisfyingly diverse programme, although even for Rachmaninov these works are on the note-heavy side. Not that programme ever feels dense or congested. On the contrary, Filsell makes such light work of the technical demands that the individual notes dissolve into the endlessly varied and expertly controlled textures.
The audio is good and complements Filsell's technique, in that both balance the detail with the bigger picture. So the precision of the passage-work is always clear, both from the playing and the reproduction, yet the listener is able to take that more or less for granted and concentrate on the drama and passion of the music. And while the sound is precise, it is never over-analytical, thanks in part to the resonant acoustic of the Wathen Hall at St Paul's School in Hammersmith.
The Second Sonata provides a rousing finale to the programme. Filsell plays the revised 1931 version of the work, although you have to dig deep into the liner notes to find that out. It is an appropriately big-boned reading, by turns expansive and intimate. It is a much performed (overperformed?) work, but Filsell gives a performance that can compete with the best on disc. The distinctive traits of his Rachmaninov again shine though, the effortless command of the technicalities, the even-handed approach to dynamics and phrasing, but above the passion and engagement that both transcends those technical accomplishments and makes them all worthwhile. An excellent disc of Rachmaninov piano music, no matter how many you already have on your shelves.
Gavin Dixon

The liner notes for this CD can be downloaded in pdf format at:

Friday, 4 February 2011

Saint-Saëns Complete Symphonies Martinon

Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
The Complete Symphonies
Symphony in A major (1850) [25:04]
Symphony No.1 in E flat Op.2 (1852) [30:41]
Symphony No.2 in A minor Op.55 (1878) [22:43]
Symphony in F 'Urbs Roma' (1856) [40:37]
Symphony No.3 in C minor Op.78 'Organ' (1886) [36:15]
Orchestre National de l'ORTF/Jean Martinon
Bernard Gavoty (organ)
rec. 18-23 November 1974, Salle Wagram, Paris (in A); 18-23 November 1974, Salle Wagram, Paris (Urbs); 11-12 July and 29-30 November 1972, Salle Wagram, Paris (1, 2); 9-10 January 1975, Église Saint-Louis des Invalides, Paris (3). ADD
EMI CLASSICS 6318042 [79:05 + 77:13]

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To call Saint-Saëns' output uneven is to put it mildly, and this cycle of his symphonies demonstrates what a problem that can be. The Third is far and away the best work here, and the other four symphonies don't even come close. But that doesn't mean they're not worth listening to. The difficulty is in forgetting about the Third while you're listening to the others and considering each on its own terms. In fact, EMI would have done Saint-Saëns' first four symphonies a real favour by omitting the Organ Symphony altogether, although I don't think their accounts would warm to the idea.
Another big problem for Saint-Saëns was his prodigious juvenalia, and among the child prodigy composers throughout musical history, he was surely amongst the busiest in his early years. The three unnumbered symphonies here are the largest-scale of his early works. The Symphony in A dates from around his 15th year, while the Symphony in F 'Urbs Roma' was written as an entry for a competition, one that he won without too much trouble.
But he was wise not to publish or number either of those works, as they pale in comparison to the other three. The unpublished symphonies show proficiency in terms of orchestration and in generally fulfilling the generic requirements of the form. But they lack originality, and there isn't much direction to the music. On the other hand, they provide excellent preparatory listening for those seeking to contextualise the mature symphonies. The primary influences on all of Saint-Saëns' symphonies seem to be Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, the latter mediated by Schumann. Listening to the youthful symphonies, it is fascinating to hear how the composer takes Mozart as the starting point for a symphonic style that takes its formal responsibilities lightly. Inner movements are always sprightly and never far from the rhythm of a dance. And the outer movements tend towards the grandeur of Beethoven, but there is always a sense of reticence (typically French) towards the pomposity of Beethoven's strident, heroic style.
Of the first two numbered symphonies, the Second is by far the superior. It is definitely the closest in style and accomplishment to the Organ Symphony, and like its more famous successor, it successfully conjoins the Baroque counterpoint of Bach, the Classical opulence of Beethoven, and the French Romantic warmth that is distinctively Saint-Saëns. The fugal, or at least contrapuntal, first movement has shades of the Organ Symphony's finale, while the stately second movement takes us back to Mozart, not as pastiche, but rather as fully digested influence.
To my knowledge, this is the only available complete set of Saint-Saëns' symphonies, but this is at least it's second, and possibly its third, appearance on CD. That said, each of the symphonies is available elsewhere, and I think the BIS and ASV between them could offer the full set. However, it is only really the Third Symphony that is subject to rigorous competition, and by modern standards the performance and recording quality are reasonable at best. Jean Martinon and his players never exaggerate anything in the music, which means we are thankfully spared some of the worst interpretive excesses that can befall the finale. On the other hand, they are often relaxed to a fault, especially in the first movement, or rather the first half of the first movement if we are to follow the composer's bipartite scheme. Where other conductors would inject some momentum where the exposition emerges from the slow introduction, Martinon continues at a relaxed pace, and continues in that vein for pretty much the whole symphony.
The roundness of the string sound is bonus, as is the definition of in the bass. But the string ensemble is loose by modern standards, and the woodwind aren't much better. The best playing from the orchestra comes from the brass and percussion. The solo trumpet is distinctive and has a wonderfully slow, narrow vibrato, it's almost a spaghetti western sound. The timpanist has his work cut out in this symphony and he (I'm assuming) really makes the most of it. That focussed penetrating tone of the lower timps provides the perfect compliment to the roundness of the string sound.
Generally, the sound quality is good for the early 70s, but never exceptional. For obvious reasons, the orchestra moves into church – Les Invalides no less – for the Organ Symphony, but the engineers manage to retain the apparent resonance at concert hall levels. The piano is artificially amplified in the finale to the point of excess, while the balance between the organ and the orchestra is just about right.
But you're not going to by this set for the Organ Symphony. It is the first and second numbered symphonies that make this set worthwhile. I've no doubt that both works appear somewhere on a to-do list at Naxos, but until they get round to it this is probably the best of the few options available.
Gavin Dixon
This review first appeared at MusicWeb International: