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MusicWeb Reviewer’s Log: October-December 2004

Reviewer: Patrick C Waller

A is usually a good place to start and, recently, for me A has meant the Swedish composer Hugo Alfvén. Some years ago I borrowed Neeme Järvi’s recordings of the first two symphonies from a library. Subsequently I started collecting the Naxos series which has now reached No. 3 but seems to be progressing very slowly. Spurred on by Rob Barnett’s positive review, (see link 1) and a cut-price offer, I bought Järvi’s complete set and have not been disappointed. In particular, the 4th symphony is an important and interesting work. If the 5th is a comparative failure, the smaller orchestral works are generally worthwhile and the performances all excellent. I found the aural perspective just a bit distant and lacking in presence but not enough to be a serious deterrent.

Mention of presence (and coincidentally moving on to B – this is not going to be alphabetical any further) brings Loris Tjeknavorian’s sharply focused recording of the three Borodin Symphonies to mind (see link 2). I have owned Andrew Davis’s Toronto recordings for years. These are well-played and very civilized but the recording is mediocre. Having ordered but not received the Tjeknavorian disc, I heard a radio broadcast of the unfinished Symphony No 3 one Sunday morning. Immediate impressions were very favourable but then some loud clicks and jumping occurred, and the presenter had to stop and play something else. I was a bit on tenterhooks when first listening to the disc (twice in the past I have had such discs and there turned out to have been a fault with the whole batch) but it was fine. These readings hit you in the face, positively extraordinary music-making captured in excellent sound by RCA. Bye-bye Toronto.

Paul Daniel’s Naxos record of Vaughan Williams’ 4th symphony is very much in the same league (see links 3 & 4). I was not the only person to be blown away by it. This was the Gramophone’s record of month and very favourably commented upon by Andrew McGregor on Radio 3. Back on MusicWeb, William Hedley was also very positive and rightly pointed out what an important bonus Flos Campi is - I was so taken with the symphony that, in retrospect, I did not do this justice.

Another composer doing well at the moment is Arnold Bax. Now we have a choice between excellent versions of the symphonies it is good to see more of his other music being released. In particular, Ashley Wass is going to record a complete cycle of the piano music for Naxos and the first disc (featuring Piano Sonatas Nos 1 and 2 and some shorter pieces) is a great start (see links 5, 6, 7). Also very worthwhile is a Dutton disc of Bax’s Songs which Em Marshall’s review encouraged me to order direct from their website (see link 8). In particular, I enjoyed hearing Ian Partridge again after a gap of quite a few years (see below) and he remains in fine voice.

A substantial amount of the music of Peter Maxwell Davies is now available to download or order on custom-made CDs (see links 9 & 10) through the MaxOpus website. Max’s music covers a very wide range of ground. For something to really get your teeth into I would recommend his Piano Concerto and Antarctic Symphony. For lighter notes try An Orkney Wedding with Sunrise or Maxwell’s Reel, with Northern Lights.

I recently caught up with Dmitry Yablonsky’s Naxos recording of the four Ballet Suites by Shostakovich (see links 11 & 12). These are all arrangements of items extracted from various sources but they are great fun to listen to and the disc is a very fine bargain.

My disc of the moment is an important première recording of Sammartinis cantata Il pianto degli Angeli della Pace (see link 13), a work which moved me as much as anything I have heard recently. This is another Naxos bargain that is well worth investigating.

All the records mentioned above have been reviewed on MusicWeb but it would be impossible, I suppose, to review everything. Below are some brief reflections on the most interesting records I have recently come across which have not [perhaps yet] been considered on the site.

The most striking is Marc-Andre Hamelin’s disc of Kapustin’s piano music for Hyperion (CDA 67433). This composer, who was born in the Ukraine in 1937, was a completely new name to me and has an eclectic style much influenced by jazz rhythms. The programme includes the Piano Sonata No 6 of 1991 (the booklet doesn’t mention any subsequent ones) and, most memorably, the Five Etudes in Different Intervals. Assuming the opus numbers are "correct" this is an even more recent work. The etudes sound ferociously difficult to play but, as one would expect, Hamelin is more than equal to the task and the sound is excellent.

Over the past year or so I have been collecting Bernard Haitink’s series of Brahms symphonies on LSO Live, which seems to be an excellent and inexpensive way of obtaining these works. The latest in the series is the 3rd Symphony coupled with the Serenade No 2 (LSO 0056). This is well up to the high standard of the previous releases both artistically and in terms of sound. The third movement of the symphony is a particular delight. This is clearly a very competitive field and, in addition to great recordings of the past (of which Boult’s are my personal favourite), there is new competition around. John Quinn has recently written very positively about Semyon Bychkov’s complete series with the WDR Symphony Orchestra of Cologne for Avie (see link 14).

Both the Bychkov series and Haitink’s latest disc are available in SACD format. The former is a hybrid but in the latter case one can pay an extra £2-3 for the SACD hybrid. I am currently wondering whether I should now be investigating this format given the drop in hardware price and wider availability of discs. I have acquired a few hybrid SACDs by default but, by way of future-proofing, should I now start paying the extra? I haven’t yet but, if I ever get SACD, I will certainly regret not doing so for Stephen Hough’s set of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concertos on Hyperion - another label which now offers the format at additional cost (see links 15 & 16). This was an automatic pick as one of my discs of the year (see link 17 [dial-up]to peruse those of other MusicWeb reviewers).

Until quite recently, I doubt I was more than subliminally aware of Rachmaninov’s operas. However, he writes very gratefully for the voice and his three one-acters in excellent recordings under Neeme Jarvi make a splendid bargain collection (Deutsche Grammophon Trio 477 041-2). The only blot is the lack of libretti. My current favourite is the very early Aleko but The Miserly Knight and Francesca da Rimini will both probably be more durable.

I can’t be the only collector who was delighted to see Nimbus come back from the dead and one of the fruits has been Martin Jones’s complete 4-CD set of Korngold’s Piano Music (NI 5705/8). The three sonatas are amongst the major works, the first two having been written at the ripe old ages of 12 and 13. But Korngold was a prodigy in the Mozart league and you would never know if you hadn’t been told. Also included are various arrangements from the operas and The Snowman – a complete pantomime. Martin Jones does an excellent job and the recorded sound is fine. This set is at bargain price and anyone who likes Korngold should be looking out for it.

The Korngold was not my biggest bargain of recent times. Pride of place there must go to Rubinstein’s Chopin set (RCA Victor 74321 979062). Eleven discs in a slimline box, I picked these up for £30 in HMV in London a couple of months ago – the easiest purchasing decision I have ever made. I think it was a temporary giveaway price, these discs cost about three times as much not long ago. The final disc duplicates some of the works in earlier renditions for which the sound requires some tolerance. However, generally these recordings are from the late 1950s and 1960s, and the sound has come up well. The readings are beyond description – a benchmark if ever there was one. For me, the Nocturnes and Waltzes are particular favourites and I suspect they may have been for Rubinstein.

Over the past few years, I have reacquainted myself with CD versions of quite a few recordings I first knew on LP. Now we seem to be reaching the stage where this is a quite rare event but I was delighted to come back to Stephen Kovacevich’s 1970s Beethoven recordings of Piano Sonatas Nos 17 & 18 on Philips (475 631-9), a disc that was owned by my father. The "downside" is that purchasing these involved a 6-CD set, although at low-medium price. The discs are, however, very well filled and contain 8 of the sonatas (the others are Nos 5, 8, 28 & 30-32), the 5 concertos, the Diabelli variations and the Bagatelles. I am still working through this set but it has been a very positive experience so far. Pity it’s in a jewel case rather than slimline box (on grounds of space and destructability – what are you meant to do when a fancy jewel case like this breaks?) but at least they have fitted them all into one double-size jobster. Apart from an occasional touch of hardness (for example in the first movement of the Pathetique), the sound is pretty good for the period. I think Kovacevich was still known as Bishop (or was it Bishop-Kovacevich?) at the time of the earliest of these recordings. His readings of the solo piano music are full of interest and the concertos have generally received very positive reviews over the years.

My final discs are of similar vintage but in this case they were honoured by being among the very few LPs I kept when I upgraded last my audio equipment about three years ago and dispensed with the turntable. Even though I could no longer play them, I couldn’t bear to part with Ian and Jennifer Partridge’s song cycles by Schubert and Schumann, recordings they made in 1973-4. In particular, it is their reading of Die schöne Müllerin that I cherish, and I was delighted when this recently reappeared on the bargain Classics for Pleasure label (586181-2).

If you’re still with me, you’ve probably realised that I am generally "a stay at home" listener but I have been following the ENO production of Wagner’s Ring at the London Coliseum. In early November I saw Siegfried (link 18) and very much agree with Marc Bridle’s view that it was a cut above what had gone previously (if musically not quite in the league of Goodall in the 1970s, as judged from the recordings available on Chandos). The production still required some tolerance (or may be one should just laugh) but Siegfried as a recalcitrant teenager came off well (having two of my own I feel qualified to comment), and I’m certainly looking forward to the Twilight of the Gods in April.

David Wright’s many articles on MusicWeb make interesting reading. His latest, called "Opinion or Fact?" (see link 19) contains some rather disparaging references to Schubert which, as you can probably imagine from the above, I would not easily accept. Of course, his Lieder are not all equally inspired but nothing on earth is going to persuade me that Schubert wasn’t a great song writer or that his late great works such as the C major symphony, the last three quartets and seven piano sonatas, and the quintets aren’t profoundly original and wonderful music. Of course, that is my opinion and David Wright is entitled to his views. Some of these certainly question received wisdom, for example, suggesting that Barbirolli was not a great conductor. Personally I wouldn’t be want to be without some of his recordings of Delius, Elgar and Mahler.

The more I thought about this article, the more I inclined towards opinion rather than fact. I would imagine most people reading this would readily agree that Beethoven was one of the greatest composers of all time but does that make it a fact? Surely there is still a value judgment involved? If someone wants to argue otherwise I would listen to their arguments and almost certainly still disagree with them but would stop short of saying they were factually wrong.

I also have a less rigorous definition of plagiarism than David Wright and much of what he alludes to in that respect would be "influence" in my books. We are all influenced by others and it is often hard to judge where such influences begin and end.

In December 2003 (see link 20), Norman Lebrecht confidently predicted the death of the classical music record industry within a year and invited us to remember this one year on (well I have). Subsequently, in September 2004 (see link 21), he signed the death certificate, did the autopsy and wrote the obituary. Lebrecht’s writings are invariably essential reading but has he gone a bit too far this time? As an avid consumer of classical music, should I really be concerned that the end of the world is nigh? I enjoyed reading David Hurwitz’s rejoinder entitled Fine Whine from Stormin’ Norman (see link 22) but can’t resist adding my twopenny worth here (views that happen to be similar but I assure you are not plagiarised).

Close scrutiny of the original article reveals that Lebrecht was only really predicting the death of the "major" labels. His example of the loss we are to suffer was Sir Simon Rattle’s never to be recorded Bruckner’s Fourth. Now, whilst I dearly love both Sir Simon and Bruckner’s 4th, I shall not be losing too much sleep about that. Nor would I be too concerned if the major labels never made another classical record because, over the last few years, the vast majority of interesting new records have been made by what Lebrecht calls "cottage" labels. The Naxos phenomenon is recognised by Lebrecht but I fear he underestimates its achievements.

My view is that the terminology merely needs changing to reflect output rather than affiliation with giant corporations. At least some of what Lebrecht calls the "cottage" labels should now be called the majors. Which labels they are could be debated but at the forefront of my mind would be Naxos, Hyperion, Chandos, and BIS. Regarding the majors of the past, all that really matters is that they keep their wonderful back catalogues in good order and availability.

Far from there being impending doom, from a consumer point of view, the range, quality and value of recorded music now available is stunning – riches undreamt of even ten years ago. Literally – we have never had it so good! Whether it will stay that way is another matter but we should certainly enjoy it while we can.

Finally, this is only my second experience of writing something other than a normal CD review and feedback would be very welcome in deciding whether it is worth me (or others – does anyone want to do something similar?) continuing on a regular basis. My first attempt at something different was an article on Bruckner’s 8th Symphony which went on the site in October (see link 23). I received several interesting e-mails, notably from John Deacon who pointed out the full extent of the composer’s association with St. Florian (where the young Bruckner was a chorister, later returned as organist and is buried – somehow I only mentioned the former – oops) and told me of his visit there. Tony Reinhardt-Rutland also wrote and engaged me in a debate about the first versions of Bruckner’s symphonies, essentially arguing that they are the most quirky and therefore more interesting than the revisions. As we were finishing the exchange, I thought it a pity that we had not used the bulletin board, particularly given the level of interest there seems to be in this composer at the moment. Therefore, if you have any comments or suggestions about this log, please put them on the bulletin board or, if you want to write one, please contact Len.

Patrick C Waller


























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