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MusicWeb Reviewer’s log: January/February 2008

Reviewer: Patrick C Waller

My experience of classical music recordings moved into previously uncharted waters just before Christmas when I went to Bath to see a recording being made. This was a truly fascinating experience despite having a bad cough and temperatures outside being sub-zero. Perhaps you’re thinking that I shouldn’t have been there at all but, as the recording was being made at my initiative and expense, and had taken 18 months to set up, I just had to be there and hold the coughs in. I also ended up with the great responsibility of turning the pages for pianist Nicola Grunberg and managed to mess up only one take! The idea was to make a recording of some of the most important works for small forces of the Cornish composer Judith Bailey, a long-time friend and former conductor of our local orchestra. It was originally intended to be a present for her 65th birthday – in July 2006 – but better late than never.

I was delighted when Jim Pattison of Dunelm Records agreed to make the recording but he is a busy man and there were initially some problems in finding a suitable date and venue. Eventually, about a year ago, a three-day slot in the diaries of Jim, Judith, the six artists, myself and the splendid Michael Tippett Centre at Bath Spa University was achieved. In the last couple of days before the recording I was seriously worried that something would go wrong – there seem to be so many possibilities. But expectations were confounded, the venue was warm, quiet and comfortable, the piano was tuned each day at the crack of dawn, everyone arrived and I was the only one not in rude health. It was immediately obvious how much effort the artists – the Davey Chamber Ensemble – had put into the preparation and they had even arranged a special concert to play some of the works live shortly beforehand. Details of the music performed and some pictures from the sessions are available on Judith’s website here.

I had seen most of the artists perform before but cellist Catherine Wilmers was, I thought, new to me until we got chatting in a break. It then emerged that she had recorded a disc of cello pieces by British women composers. This splendid disc is in my collection and was reviewed on MusicWeb in 2000 (see review). Although appearing on the ASV label, this disc was made at her initiative and a fair amount of research was involved. When it was deleted Catherine acquired the outstanding copies and I understand it is available directly from her via this e-mail link.

Watching Jim and his wife/assistant Joyce work was fascinating although I didn’t arrive in time to see them set the equipment up, and they politely refused my offer to help put it away at the end. Everyone was concentrating hard but the atmosphere was relaxed and to my amazement we kept to and, if anything, ran ahead of schedule. In deciding which takes were to go in the master – this was primarily the composer’s task – there was always a balance to be struck between absolute technical perfection and capturing the spirit of the music. Making the recording is, of course, only one element of producing a disc so I shall come to this as things develop.

At Christmas, the main present I received was the recently issued 22CD budget box of Stravinsky conducting his own music. I have only listened to about a third of it so far, focusing on the ballet music but I have been impressed with the immediacy of the early stereo sound. There are some fizzing interpretations – Stravinsky was no slouch as a conductor even in his dotage. Although I shouldn’t be thinking about price for Christmas presents received, I couldn’t help noticing how cheap this was – around £1 per CD. There is a little documentation, some particularly interesting rehearsal material and an interview with the composer on one of the discs but to find out anything about the music – e.g. when or how it came to be written – it is necessary to go elsewhere. Interestingly, the original large box with jewel cases is still available for around £100 and presumably this is properly documented. It is a pity that there isn’t something in between – I can’t imagine many people will be willing to pay such a large difference just to have the documentation. A proper booklet would have increased the cost by just a few pounds and would have greatly enhanced the bargain product.

One Christmas present I gave to my good lady also raised an issue in relation to documentation. I had an inkling she would like to hear some Tallis beyond Spem in Alium and the 2CD set from the complete Chappelle du Roi recordings under Alistair Dixon on Portrait reviewed by Brian Wilson seemed a good bet. Unfortunately, when the discs were played we noticed that there were 26 tracks on the second disc but only 18 listed in the documentation. Track 15 was supposedly Spem in Alium but certainly wasn’t. Someone who knows the music might not have a problem with this but, as the set is primarily intended for people who might want to get to know the composer, we have suggested to Portrait label that they should be reprinting the documentation. This is all a pity because the performances are splendid. At least Tallis admirers can now purchase cheaply the complete set of Chappelle du Roi recordings in a 10CD Brilliant box.

When buying presents, MusicWeb’s recordings of the year page is always a good place to look and one that seemed a no-brainer for my cellist wife was Steven Isserlis’s recording of Bach’s Suites, reviewed and chosen by Dominy Clements. We have both enjoyed these interpretations very much although I have been slightly distracted by various physical noises coming from the cello on some of the tracks. My wife says that it’s impossible to play this music without making such noises but I wonder if the recording isn’t a bit too closely balanced. This is relatively marginal compared to the noise of the bassoon mechanism on another disc Dominy has reviewed – woodwind music by John R. Williamson. I enjoyed this music considerably more than him but was also more put out by mechanistic noise of the bassoon. As a woodwind player – if you haven’t seen his contrabass flute click here – Dominy seemed as sympathetic as my wife was about the cello! I should stress that the clarinet and flute pieces on these discs sound excellent and also that there is nothing wrong with the playing of bassoonist Rosemary Richardson.

On New Year’s Day I was travelling and listened to the traditional concert from Vienna, conducted by Georges Prêtre in the car. On the same day, rather surprisingly, Channel 5 decided to broadcast at 9 o’clock in the morning the recently issued Tony Palmer lengthy documentary on Vaughan Williams entitled O Thou Transcendent - words which are taken from the finale of the Sea Symphony. Having recorded it on the DVD player, we sat down to start watching late in the evening, not intending to get all the way through - but we couldn't stop. This is certainly compulsive viewing for anyone interested in the composer with lots of historic footage including, most memorably, Sir Adrian Boult conducting part of the 5th symphony. The main disappointment I felt was in the way the modern musical examples created for the documentary were used. The players were very artificially arranged for visual effect and there were unnecessary departures from the musical chronology. Also, the use of numbers for some of the time for the early symphonies will probably have confused people who are not very familiar with RVW’s symphonic canon. But this is something I shall want to see again sometime and there are not many documentaries you could say that about.

Moving on to some CDs I have heard recently, perhaps the most outstanding is the one containing two string quartets – the first and fourth of Graham Whettam. His name was unfamiliar to me until I read Rob Barnett’s review of the Carducci Quartet’s disc. There is also an oboe quartet thrown in for good measure and the music is indeed gripping. I should also mention the Hyperion disc of Coleridge Taylor quintets that John France enjoyed so much back in October. The Clarinet quintet is particularly attractive. Sibelius’s only mature string quartet, the Voces Intimae is a favourite of mine and it was good to see the Fitzwilliam Quartet’s 1980 reading being released on the Australian Eloquence label coupled with the Delius quartet (442 9486). I bought this from Buywell Just Classical along with an interesting and excellent sounding disc of orchestral music by Pizzetti, Respighi and Rota (476 9766). It is hard to believe that the Pizzetti recordings date from 1966 and it was certainly worth the modest cost - and carbon miles - to have them shipped half way round the world.

Much of my listening to unfamiliar music continues to be through the Naxos Music Library which grows at an amazing rate. I regard myself as an avid listener but, even if I listened to nothing else, I wouldn’t have time to listen to all the new discs that go onto the Library. Top of the recent finds is a disc of the contemporary Russian composer Igor Raykhelson on Toccata Classics. Yuri Bashmet leads the artists in attractive music which successfully and originally bridges the jazz/classical divide. Next up, the Maggini Quartet’s splendid readings of Lennox Berkeley’s three quartets (8.570415) and a disc of songs by William Alwyn (8.570201) notable for Seascapes - four songs in which soprano Elin Manahan Thomas is accompanied by a treble recorder in addition to a piano.

Domenico Scarlatti’s keyboard sonatas are perennial favourites but I am not sure I had previously ever heard anything else by him until a recent release of his sacred vocal music appeared in the Library (8.570382). After Scarlatti and, of course, J.S. Bach, my favourite baroque composer might well be Tomaso Albinoni. He may not have been as prolific as Telemann and Vivaldi but he was certainly in the same creative league. It was good to hear some of his vocal music for a change, a splendid recording of the serenata Nascimento de L'Aurora having been issued on Oehms OC913 and appearing in the Naxos Library.

Also, in respect of streamed library listening, I have enjoyed hearing the eight string quartets of the Venetian born 20th century composer Gian Francesco Malipiero, whose grandfather Francesco Malipiero was an opera composer during the mid-19th century. These are on the Dynamic label and his eleven symphonies are also there (on Marco Polo) and on my future listening list. Gianandrea Noseda’s Chandos reading of Cooke’s performing version of Mahler’s Tenth symphony (CHAN10456) has just appeared in the library and first impressions are that this is very fine indeed.

Speaking of Mahler, his fourth symphony was on the programme for Marin Alsop’s last concert in Portsmouth as music director of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, for which some tickets fortuitously fell into my lap. The programme opened with the Overture to Die Meistersinger conducted by Kelly Corcoran, the diminutive winner of a fellowship set up by Alsop to help aspiring female conductors. Bernstein’s first symphony – Jeremiah followed with Lisa Milne in splendid voice in the finale. Ms. Alsop was mentored by Bernstein early in her career and explained that she wanted to go out with a work which was new to the orchestra; it was good to hear it. The Mahler was splendid, a characterful but superbly controlled reading. The orchestral playing was excellent and leader Duncan Riddell deserves special mention for his playing of the devilish solos in the scherzo. When you listen to this work on record it is easy to forget that the leader needs two violins – one tuned up in pitch. If there was any doubt about this reading it was in the finale where Lisa Milne’s big voice seemed less idiomatic than in the Bernstein. A year or two back I heard Alsop’s reading of the Resurrection symphony on the radio and wasn’t really convinced; this time her Mahlerian credentials could hardly be questioned.

Over the holiday period the MusicWeb team was busy thinking about their favourite discs for the new feature Our Classic Classics. It wasn’t easy to choose just 50 or so all-time favourites but between us all an interesting list seems to have been created. The idea promptly caused a sale of a least one disc when in the space of minutes I heard Murray Perahia playing Handel’s Suite No. 3 on the radio and saw it among David Barker’s choices. And a splendid disc it is too, with some very cultured Scarlatti to boot (SK62785).

In mid-January, as has been the custom for the past couple of years, Len invited us all to lunch in Coventry and it was good to catch up with some now familiar faces and meet some new ones. I was sat between new recruit Margarida Mota-Bull who originally hails from Portugal and Robert Hugill who is a composer and has recently had a disc issued (see review). A little further down the table was Anne Ozorio who had recently heard a much more controversial Mahler 4 – Gergiev’s rendition with the LSO (see review). Across the table were Len and Simon Foster of Avie and some of the conversation was about the shortly to be released Durham Concerto by Jon Lord (ex-Deep Purple). Having heard the samples in the review, I am certainly looking forward to hearing the whole thing. Meanwhile, Margarida did her best to educate me about Portuguese music beyond Braga-Santos and kindly followed it up with an e-mail containing some recommendations. There is a disc of piano music by Vianna da Motta in the Naxos Library with various works - the Cenas portugesas Op. 9 and 18 are striking and unmistakably Iberian.

On the other table, my wife was seated next to and charmed by composer Arthur Butterworth who will be 85 in August. The first thing we did on arriving home was to dig out the two discs of his music currently available – the First symphony and Piano trios and viola sonata - they are wonderful records. We badly need some more recordings of Arthur’s music which, in a way, takes me back to where I came in. Another long-term project perhaps? I think a few of us need to put our heads together on this one.

Patrick C Waller


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