Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Glière Symphony No. 3 Falletta Buffalo Philharmonic

Reinhold Glière: Symphony No. 3 “Il’ya Muromets”
Buffalo Philharmonic
JoAnn Falletta, cond.
Naxos 8.573161

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Listening to Glière’s Third Symphony, especially in this excellent new recording from JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic, it is difficult to understand why the piece doesn’t have a place at the very centre of the orchestral repertoire. The music is in a Russian Romantic vein, by turns lyrical and dramatic, and filled with memorable tunes, intense dramatic episodes and dazzling orchestral effects. It was written in 1911 early in Glière’s career, but it has much more character and a more dynamic profile than the generally blander music of his later years.
Reasons for its relative neglect may include the composer’s lack of name recognition, which is a shame, because this work worthy of Tchaikovsky or any of the Mighty Handful in terms of musical quality and originality. It draws on all of those composers, particularly in its narrative structure and its colourful dramatisation of episodes from Russian history. The work is subtitled “Il’ya Muromets” and tells the story of this early Russian warrior’s political intrigues, military victories, and grizzly fate, turned to stone along with his army as a punishment from God.
Another problem that stands against greater exposure is the challenge the work poses to any orchestra considering a performance. A large orchestra is called for, and virtuosity is required from every player. Glière’s orchestral textures are often dense, yet require the utmost clarity and accuracy. The work is also a challenge for the conductor. Like many programme symphonies – Manfred, those of Berlioz and Strauss – the work seems to be structured simultaneously according to both a formal symphonic plan and the narrative. The conductor must balance the two, giving individual episodes the dramatic autonomy to set their various scenes, yet without the overall work becoming overtly episodic.
Falletta and her Buffalo forces succeed in meeting all these challenges. This recording is the result of a major project focussing on the symphony, which also included performances in Buffalo and at Carnegie Hall. The intensive rehearsal has clearly paid off, because the orchestra is on top form. Ensemble throughout is very precise, particularly so within sections. Yet there is never any feeling that they are playing it safe. The orchestra really brings out the myriad colours and exotic textures, which the sound engineering captures spectacularly well. There is plenty of weight from the brass, but they never overpower at the climaxes, and always retain their tonal control.
Naxos is rightly marketing this recording as the rediscovery of a little-known masterpiece. As it happens, this isn’t the first time Glière’s Third has been presented as such. In 1991 Chandos released a recording to a similar fanfare, and succeeded in enthusing a great many listeners to the work. That recording was made by Edward Downes and the BBC Philharmonic. Downes takes a more episodic approach, slower and with greater focus on the atmosphere of each section. It too is a great recording, but this one is even better. Falletta takes things faster, and although her tempos are fluid, she doesn’t go to the same extremes as Downes. The result is greater continuity and flow – a more symphonic approach. Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic are particularly good at pacing slow build-ups, and, conversely, at switching suddenly between textures when the score demands. This Naxos recording also trumps the Chandos in the recording quality. Again, both are good, but Naxos achieves a greater bass presence and a more convincing sound stage.
A top recommendation, then, for this new Il’ya Muromets. It’s a symphony that should really be known much better than it is, so let’s hope that this excellent new recording puts it one step further in that direction.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Your Tuneful Voice Iestyn Davies sings Handel

Your Tuneful Voice: Handel Oratorio Arias
Iestyn Davies, countertenor
  Carolyn Sampson, soprano
The King’s Consort, Robert King
Vivat 105 [67:23]

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The latest release on Robert King’s Vivat label is a collection of arias from Handel’s oratorios sung by countertenor Iestyn Davies. The project is a great idea for many reasons, not least of which are the music’s relative underexposure and its undeniable quality. Davies has the ideal voice for Handel, and the King’s Consort gives him colourful but sensitive support throughout. Add to that excellent recorded sound and elegant packaging, and the result is a very attractive album indeed.
Davies’ tone is both warm and pure, attributes rarely associated with countertenor voices. His diction is excellent, allowing every word to come through clearly (though they are all in the liner too if you miss any). He tends toward a very slight vibrato at the end of held notes, but it’s a tasteful device, whatever its historical veracity. Despite his always smooth legato, Davies clearly defines every note, his tuning always spot on, and his choice of attack always appropriate. Handel occasionally sets him up in duets with woodwind soloists, and the combination of tone colours is always ideal, differentiated enough for clarity, but also similar enough to allow the ensemble to cohere. Similarly, the soprano Carolyn Sampson duets with Davies in two numbers, and again the combination of timbres, and the balance between the voices, is finely judged.
A detailed orchestra list is included, even stating the makers of all the instruments used. If this represents the permanent constitution of the orchestra, then the King’s Consort is approaching All-Star-Cast status. Just to give a few of the big names here, the leader is Kati Debretzeni, the seconds are led by Matthew Truscott, and the trumpets and horns are led respectively by Crispian Steele-Perkins and Anneke Scott. Yet, for all these world-class performers in the ensemble, there is never any danger of Davies losing the limelight. Even the brass section gives him the space he needs, although there are plenty of orchestral expositions and interludes in which the instrumental soloists can shine.
Robert King presents Handel’s oratorio music as warm and euphonious. Despite the lack of vibrato, the string section always has a round and highly unified sound. Recorders are used instead of flutes, which may or may not be appropriate to the era, but also increases the tonal warmth and homogeneity. In fact, historical verisimilitude is clearly a major concern here. The liner note, by Donald Burrows, conjectures about the possibility that male falsettists would have performed in Handel’s oratorios, although he concedes that there is no direct evidence they did. Less edifying is the claim in the booklet that the King’s Consort perform “on authentic instruments.” Without digressing too much about just how meaningless those words are, it is a great shame that an ensemble that is clearly a world leader in the field chooses to describe its activities in terms that have been discredited since at least the 1980s.
That aside, this is a very satisfying listen. A case could certainly be made for performing this repertoire in a more angular style, making the drama in many of the lyrics a bit more explicit. But King and Davies demonstrate that Handel’s music doesn’t need that kind of help. And even if they lay off the histrionics, they still provide plenty of musical variety to keep the listener’s interest.