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MusicWeb Reviewer’s Log: September-November 2008

Reviewer: Patrick C Waller 

In September I was quite surprised to hear on the radio that Vernon Handley had died at the age of 77 because I hadn’t realised he was ill or quite that old. Not that 77 is “old” for a conductor of course! Needless to say MusicWeb published an obituary very promptly and I was soon thinking what an important conductor he was for anyone interested in British music. I never saw him live but, as far as I can tell from trawling my database, I have more works in my collection directed by him (about 150) than by any other conductor. I suspected that a similar situation might apply to reviews on MusicWeb and spent a few hours finding all the reviews and producing a page of links to them so that his legacy can easily be appreciated. I was also prompted to revisit one his finest achievements – Bantock’s Omar Khayyám during a long car journey and to finally get around to hearing his Bax symphonies by buying the marvellous Chandos set. This seems to be going for around £25 at the moment and is a real bargain. When it first appeared, I was collecting the Lloyd-Jones recordings on Naxos and reluctant to duplicate. Good though those are, Handley’s series is surely the most definitive yet and unlikely to be surpassed. The final disc has an extended interview with Handley about the works and I found that fascinating. I kept expecting a musical example to appear – there are none – and next time I shall listen to the relevant part of the interview before hearing the music.

The symphonies of Bruckner continue to be frequent visitors to my CD player and one major gap in my recorded listening to this composer has been the readings of Wilhelm Furtwängler of Nos. 4-9. These are all live recordings from the 1940s and 1950s but a recent reissue on Music and Arts received a very positive review in terms of the sound remastering, so I took the plunge noting that the same recordings are available on Andromeda for less than half the price. The sound is impressive and Furtwängler’s approach is fervent – this is Bruckner played at white heat. He was free with tempi and idiosyncratic about editions; unfortunately the first movement of the Sixth has disappeared into the ether but none of these factors should put one off because there is something indefinable here that is quite magical. Quite different and all much more “objective” are three recordings of the Eighth Symphony which I have also heard recently. Klemperer was surprisingly fleet in his Cologne recording of 1957, as was van Beinum in Amsterdam in 1955, a recording which has recently appeared in the Naxos Classical Archives – historical material that is only available by download from Classicsonline and costs a mere £1-99 per “disc”. Both these Bruckner 8 recordings take a mere 72 minutes (about 80 is “par”) but that’s not a problem to me – they are tremendous readings in very reasonable sound for the period. From the same period Schuricht’s Stuttgart recording is more measured but seems less consistently coherent and is certainly less well played.

I downloaded the Schuricht as part of a no obligation free trial on e-music. Twenty-five free tracks were available and I also obtained Gergiev’s Mahler 7, Rostropovich’s Shostakovich 11, James Ehnes’s Elgar Violin Concerto and three of Paul Lewis’s Beethoven sonatas (24, 28 and 29), all of which proved very worthwhile listening. I decided not to continue to a subscription for various reasons, including poor navigation facilities around the site, variable unstated bit rates and no attempt being made to address the problem of joins across tracks. Ultimately, my choices from this site were always going to be biased by length of track and continuity (as illustrated above). For example, I was potentially interested in Bernarda Fink’s recent Schubert disc (HMC901991) but this has 25 tracks and would therefore cost as much as all the above put together. There is a new download site which seems to lack the downsides of e-music mentioned above – Passionato – but I haven’t yet sampled from it. Incidentally, I was pleased to see the advent of Brian Wilson’s useful “Download round-ups” in October and November.

Another recording I have recently downloaded is Anne-Sophie Mutter’s recording of Gubaidulina’s Violin Concerto (from Classics and Jazz). I preferred this to the CD because I wasn’t really interested in acquiring the Bach couplings. I have also been listening to Sir Adrian Boult’s 1940s Elgar recordings, the First Symphony through a download from the Classical shop (in excellent sound from Pristine Classical) and the Second Symphony via a recent Beulah release. Both are magnificent performances but the sound on the Beulah disc is rather disappointing, although the coupled wonderful reading of and better sounding In the South offset that a little.

One of the best sounding discs I have heard recently is a Linn release called Trumpet Masque, a series of baroque miniatures for Trumpet and Piano. Here the playing of Jonathan Freeman-Attwood is stunning. Also sounding particularly good is Trevor Pinnock’s remake of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos from Avie.

There seem to be quite a few anniversaries this year but for most Brits the Vaughan Williams 50th will probably be the most important. I caught a screening of a BBC documentary called The Passions of Vaughan Williams which was excellent, and also the television broadcast of the Prom concert devoted entirely to his work which was conducted by Sir Andrew Davis. The TV programme included the Tallis Fantasia, Serenade to Music and Ninth symphony but scandalously Job was not aired in favour of some celebrity punditry. This reduces the concerts to the level of a football match and should be dropped forthwith. I also watched the last night on TV but enjoyed it rather less than Jim Pritchard seemed to in the hall. The previous combination of serious music followed by razzamatazz seemed to work well but this new wall-to-wall glitz is much less to my liking and Sir Roger Norrington hardly seemed the man for that anyway.

The other big anniversaries are the 80th birthday of Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara which I have been celebrating by listening to his symphonies, and the 100th birthday of Olivier Messiaen. There is a good choice of bargain boxes of Messiaen’s music around which would make good Christmas presents, including the complete works on DG (4801333 – 32 CDs for a mere £63 from MDT) which is now on my wish list. An excellent review of the various sets is available in the November issue of International Record Review. For the moment, I made do with Kent Nagano’s riveting Turangalîla Symphony recorded live with the Berlin Philharmonic and downloadable for £3 on the Warner website – this is still a full price CD so there is quite a big incentive to download it.

The credit crunch is not all bad news, at least for consumers of recorded music since there are a lot of bargains around. Even Hyperion have had a sale on their website and I picked up some very desirable discs at about half-price, notably John McCabe’s Fourth symphony and Flute Concerto, and Grechaninov’s two Piano Trios and Cello Sonata (CDA62795). I also added a further instalment of their Simpson quartet cycle (including Nos. 14 and 15) to my collection. As soon as I finish, no doubt they’ll issue it all in a bargain box – this is what happened with the symphonies. Talking of boxes, EMI have been issuing some interesting looking historical ones in a series called Icon. So far I have sampled the Solomon recordings which are wonderful indeed - seven discs costing around £17.

One work that I have been trying to obtain a recording of for a long-time is Liszt’s Violin Sonata (or Duo as it is often known). I have fond memories of the Campoli version of this from LP days but there doesn’t seem to have been any recording available of the work for some years until one popped up on the unfamiliar (to me) Marquis label (774718310422). This dates from the 1970s and is played by Endré Granat. The liner claims that the original Orion Master recordings were audiophile standard but here they don’t sound anything like it, although whether or not it is just a poor transfer I can’t tell. So I wouldn’t recommend this disc and the field remains open for a new recording or perhaps even a re-issue of the Campoli?

It is also good to discover completely unfamiliar composers. I had not heard of Paul Juon until I read Gary Higginson’s review of the recent CPO release of the Piano Quartets but I enjoyed discovering the music as much as he obviously did.

As usual, I have listened quite a bit to the Naxos Music Library and there are a couple of recently added recordings which are so good that I must mention them – a gripping performance of Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony by the RLPO under Petrenko (8.570568) and both Chopin Piano Concertos played with great grace by Sa Chen on Pentatone (PTC5186341). As a result of being able to hear any Naxos disc through streaming, I hadn’t bought one of their CDs for quite a while but don’t tell Klaus Heymann! Eventually I decided that there are a few that I simply must have in my collection and these were Malipiero’s Third and Fourth symphonies, the final instalment of Maxwell Davies’s Naxos quartet series (Nos. 9 & 10 on 8.557400), the sparkling chamber music of Paul Moravec, Zemlinsky’s early music for the cello, and volume 2 of the ongoing Alfred Hill quartet series (8.572097).

To finish, I will mention a few items on MusicWeb that certainly should not be missed - starting, most obviously, with Len’s weekly How did I miss that? Also, Dan Morgan’s mega-review of the music of Kalevi Aho has certainly whetted my appetite to explore his oeuvre in the coming months. My colleague David Barker has been away travelling for the past few weeks and asked me to prepare and post his weekly page of Quotations. This is gradually building up into a most interesting list.

Patrick C Waller


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