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MusicWeb Reviewerís Log: March 2005

Reviewer: Patrick C Waller

As in the world of wine, perhaps there are good and bad years for recorded music. To my mind, the 2005 vintage is shaping up very well. Here we are in early March and already there have been many outstanding new issues. MusicWeb has had so many recordings and bargains of the month recently that it has been hard to keep up. The one I listened to with greatest anticipation was Elgarís Piano Concerto (link 1), remembering well the amazing experience of hearing the first performance of his 3rd Symphony on the radio back in 1998. If the Piano Concerto is not quite in the same league as a work, this probably reflects Elgarís contribution (or lack of it in places) more than the input of Robert Walker who put it together. Whilst Elgar on his deathbed indicated that he didnít want such tinkering with his works, I wonder if he would have changed his mind if he knew how good the tinkerers would be. Never mind all that, itís a great disc, playing and recording are excellent and there are several bonuses (notably the Elegy in Memory of Elgar by Anthony Collins).

In spite of my enthusiasm for it, the Elgar would not be my disc of last month. The palm there goes to Véronique Gensís splendid renditions of the Songs of the Auvergne (links 2 & 3) with memorable accompaniments from the Orchestre National de Lille under Jean-Claude Casadesus. Canteloubeís evergreen arrangements have surely never sounded so well, the only possible gripe being that itís not a complete set (in fairness they donít quite fit on a single CD).

More on recent discs from Naxos below but the label of the moment for me is undoubtedly Hyperion with no less than four tremendous recent offerings, the three of which have so far been reviewed on this site were considered "Recordings of the Month". The coupling of Violin Concertos by Coleridge-Taylor and Somervell is particularly splendid (link 4) and Anthony Marwood is a fine advocate for both of them. The two works contrast quite a bit, the Coleridge-Taylor dramatic, the Somervell lyrical but both hit the spot. I almost bought a record of the former coupled with DvořŠkís concerto when it was released last year but, given this pairing, I am now glad I never got round to it.

Next came the first two Stanford String Quartets (apparently there are six more to look forward to). We are not overrun with British string quartets and this is a series which has not so far appeared on disc. Whilst they do not break new ground, they not deserve their previous neglect. I was struck by Christopher Howellís review (link 5) Ė he bought the scores in the early 1970s and only now is able to listen to them! The later Fantasy for Horn and String Quartet is an interesting bonus. See also link 6 for Michael Cooksonís review.

The final Hyperion disc of last month is the first of a projected series of all Fauréís Songs (links 7 and 8). As with their Schubert and Schumann songs series, Graham Johnson is the pianist and different singers are matched to the pieces. Felicity Lott is the best known singer and contributes five songs from Venice and Au bord de líeau, the latter providing the title of the disc. I found the duet Pleurs díor particularly enchanting with splendid singing from Jennifer Smith and John Mark Ainsley.

At the time of writing, Hyperionís highly recommendable disc of Études by Adolf von Henselt (CDA67495) has not been reviewed on MusicWeb. Piers Lane is the pianist and makes a compelling case for these neglected works which were written in the late 1830s and influenced by Chopin. The Études all have titles and sound just a little easier for the student than Chopinís but they make for very pleasant listening. The Poème díamour is a lovely bonus which is sandwiched between the two sets of 12 Études, one for the concert hall and one for the salon.

An appeal in Hyperionís court case is imminent (see link 9). I can only echo the views of Cliff Occomore on the Bulletin board (link 10) that many music lovers will be rooting for them. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the case, it seems a pity that it has got this far Ė the only real winners will probably be the lawyers.

Coming back to Naxos, I must mention their fine discs of British Piano Concertos (link 11) and British Guitar Music (link 12). Peter Donohoe is doing a fantastic job with the piano series, the highlight of the latest disc perhaps being the concerto by Howard Ferguson. There are three more on the disc Ė by Rowley, Darnton and Gerhard Ė hardly household names but all worth hearing. I was previously virtually unaware of British guitar music but thoroughly enjoyed Graham Anthony Devineís recital. Lennox Berkeley provided the lionís share of the music and he wrote felicitously for the instrument.

Naxos are currently putting out premières of Sammartiniís sacred cantatas and I reviewed the first disc couple of months ago (link 13). A second disc has appeared on 8.557431 (not yet been reviewed on MusicWeb), a worthy follow-up which is very much in the same mould. Two more cantatas from 1751 are presented with the same forces apart from the contralto and tenor soloists. It is interesting that the artists singing these parts on the first disc were not to Jonathan Woolfís taste (link 14) although I felt more positive about the whole enterprise.

That difference of view was minor compared to the opinions put forward over Schnabelís disc of Beethovenís Piano Sonatas Nos 27-29 (see links 15 and 16), particularly regarding the Hammerklavier. Colin Clarke obviously loved it and I didnít. Presumably record companies wonít be too bothered about that, reading such disparate views could be a stimulus to finding out for oneself.

One of the joys of recorded music is being able to construct concert programmes in your own living room. I have just given over half an evening to a couple of premières (meaning I havenít heard them before) which went together very well. Courtesy of Naxos the total cost was about half that of one ticket for a concert I recently attended. I can now listen in perpetuity and also have the various other works on the two discs as bonuses. First up was George McKayís Violin Concerto (links 17 and 18) from 1940. The USA has not been the worldís greatest producer of violin concertos (Barberís is the most obvious exception) and for some reason seems to have been keeping one of its best a secret. I had not heard of the composer until recently, nor was I familiar with fiddle player (Brian Reagin) or conductor (John McLaughlin Williams) but I was impressed all round. After a short interval came Rawsthorneís Pastoral Symphony (No 2, written in 1959). I confess to some soft spots for the Pastoral Symphonies of Ludwig van B and RVW, and this one didnít disappoint either. There is possibly some influence from RVWís Ďtakeí on the countryside but also great originality. A snoring dog added to the rural atmosphere at the opening of the slow movement (far preferable to the local bronchitics). Charlotte Ellettís singing (with words) in the finale was impressive as were the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under David Lloyd-Jones. The couplings on this CD are two other Rawsthorne symphonies and I was interested to see a rider on the documentation that the composer marked short gaps between the movements of the third symphony (presumably there to head off critics who canít find anything else to whinge about!). My only gripe would be that the slow movement of the First Symphony is given as "Allegro" (oops) but, whilst wondering what the correct marking is, I share Em Marshallís enthusiasm for this disc (link 19). Her review popped up on Music Web just a day or so after my personal concert.

Dag Wirén seems to be an underrated composer and I enjoyed reviewing a disc of his orchestral music recently (see link 20). My bargain of the month also features some of his music (ASV CDDCA 825). I happened to come across a disc of live recordings of the Lindsay String Quartet selling for just £3 which opened with the 3rd Quartet. Other works on the disc are André Tchaikovskyís 2nd Quartet (a recording of the première from 1978), Hugh Woodís 3rd Quartet from the same year and Samuel Barberís one and only with the slow movement that everyone knows. I enjoyed the Wirén (and indeed all of it) but the Wood impressed most, a cogent single movement work, very well argued by the Lindsays. The sound is a little close and the audiences occasionally intrusive but this is a splendid memento. The disc was issued in 1992 to celebrate 25 years of the quartet and now 2005 will be the last for them. I will particularly treasure their first recorded Beethoven series but also have fond memories of hearing them live perform the Op.130 quartet (with the Grösse Fuge as the finale) and Schubertís String Quintet. Their concentration in such works was simply amazing. A final bravo for the Lindsays.

Bernard Haitinkís series of Brahms Symphonies for LSO Live has just been completed with the issue of the Fourth Symphony (LSO0057). I have enjoyed his traversal of these great works and the 4th is a highlight. In this work Haitink adopts a surprisingly light touch at times, particularly in the first movement. Overall, though, it is a highly convincing reading with wonderful playing from the LSO and a decent recording. I was a little disappointed that it received short shrift in the Gramophone Ė the one take away message being that it is poor value at 42 minutes (despite the very low price). Never mind the width, feel the quality! On the subject of CD timings, there is no doubt that record reviewers did us all a great service some years ago by harping on about the need for full CDs. Now, I donít think it is necessary. Record companies have certainly got the message, to the extent that if something wonít quite fit on one CD and there is no coupling they now often just charge for one. If, in a live series such as this, they had nothing else suitable as a fill up for one of the four discs (the others have extensive couplings), then surely that is forgivable. The whole series certainly represents excellent value and, if issued as a set, would be a prime modern recommendation (at least until Marin Alsopís is complete and I have a feeling this will be a close run contest).

Finally, a happy 18th birthday to Naxos (link 21) Ė this label has certainly "come of age". Their low price hasnít changed in all 18 years but the quality and quantity of their output has steadily increased. Never a month goes by without some irresistible addition(s) to their catalogue and my shelves. The Canteloube disc mentioned above is one of their recent gems Ė if there are still any doubters that Naxos price means you canít be getting the very best, they should listen to this.

I hope you are enjoying the 2005 vintage as much as I am. Cheers!

Patrick C Waller
























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