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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

MusicWeb Reviewer’s Log: December 2005

Reviewer: Patrick C Waller

My mind is a little focused on Scarlatti at the moment, courtesy of Scott Ross’s complete sonata recordings made twenty years ago and now re-issued in a splendid and affordable format, albeit still on 34 CDs (link 1). Having volunteered to review this for MusicWeb, I felt it couldn’t wait the six months I expect it will take me to listen to it and therefore this will (as a special exception to our general approach) be a living review, updated as we go along. I shall try to keep listening to and writing about other things, there is only so much one can say about Scarlatti sonatas, marvellous though they are.

Although I am familiar with Rachmaninov’s major works, until recently his songs had almost completely passed me by. Elisabeth Söderström and Vladimir Ashkenazy recorded them all between 1974-9 and I chanced upon their 3CD set (Decca London 436 920-2) going very cheaply. I have greatly enjoyed making their acquaintance. Quite a few of the songs are familiar from transcriptions and it was good to hear the original formats. For example, I had heard the famous Vocalise in at least three other versions without hearing the original. These are wonderful performances and it is a classic set.

I have also been listening to Martinů’s songs (link 2), recently issued on the Naxos label and well-received by Rob Barnett. These are beautifully sung by Olga Černá but I couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed that many of them are not as characteristic of this composer as I had expected.

One Naxos disc I have heard without even the slightest disappointment was the first in Robert Craft’s Webern series. As Bruce Hodges and Colin Clarke made clear (links 3 and 4), this is a stunning disc and I hope the rest of the series won’t be too far behind. Naxos has also scored a hit with their recording of Ellen Zwilich’s music (links 5 & 6). The Violin Concerto and Rituals for percussion and orchestra are both products of the last few years and I enjoyed them equally. The slow movement of the Violin Concerto reworks Bach’s famous Chaconne and is particularly memorable.

Whilst on the subject of female composers, Peter Jacob’s recordings of Cécile Chaminade’s piano music are being reissued at budget price on Hyperion’s Helios label and volume 1 was a Recording of the Month in October (link 7). I have no complaints about the playing or recording but the music often seemed pretty inconsequential to me. More to my taste were the cello sonata and songs of another, less well known, French female composer Marie Jaëll (link 8). Another disc of virtually forgotten music I reviewed recently was Kevin Bowyer’s recording of the organ music of Alkan, the first of a series (link 9) – powerful and original stuff superbly played.

Balakirev’s symphonies are works I had been meaning to hear for some time and Chandos’s recent re-coupling of both and other orchestral works seemed like a good opportunity (see link 10 for review). Splendid sound and the playing from the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra under Vassily Sinaisky almost sounds authentically Russian.

It was time for a further visit to MaxOpus Music, the website which offers downloads or custom-made CDs of the music of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (link 11). My interest was in the first two Strathclyde concertos (for oboe and cello respectively) dating from the 1980s – these are powerful and substantial works if relatively conventionally structured. Seven of this series of ten are now available (all except Nos 4-6), as are seven of the eight symphonies and much else besides. If you are interested in Max’s music there’s no need to go anywhere else.

I have finally managed to catch up with the version of Mahler’s Fifth that Tony Duggan considers the finest available (link 12). Not long ago this was a full price disc but the re-issue on the Brilliant label cost me a mere £7 for a two-disc set which also contains the Tenth symphony in Barshai’s own reconstruction. Safe to say I was not disappointed with these renditions of either work. Both are live recordings with superb playing and sound. The Tenth was particularly interesting because of the differences in orchestration from the usual Cooke edition. However, it seemed to me that Barshai’s conducting was also a big factor giving this version a different "feel" and it certainly sounds the most Mahlerian of the versions I have yet heard. In the finale, Barshai’s refusal to linger cuts 3-4 minutes off most other versions and seems totally justified. Thankfully the applause is edited out at the end (it remains at the end of the Fifth). I always think of Mahler’s Ninth as being his greatest work until I put the Tenth on and then my instinct is that, had he finished it, this would have been even finer. Having heard him conduct it live about 25 years ago, I won’t be parting with Simon Rattle’s recordings of this work but the Barshai version and Joe Wheeler reconstruction on Naxos are ideal supplements.

Whilst on the subject of Brilliant Classics I should also mention their box of Ibert’s chamber music (Brilliant 6486). Like the Mahler, this is a 2CD set available very cheaply and is nicely presented apart from the wide double jewel case (which should now be consigned to history). At least this one arrived intact – the case of the Mahler looked like it had been hit by a bus. Ibert’s chamber music spans the period 1917-1953, is mostly miniature and is here presented chronologically. The major works are a string quartet and trio for violin, cello and harp, both dating from the early 1940s. Ibert wrote for all manner of different combinations of instruments and there are many variations of mood. Going from the light and airy Deux Interludes for flute, violin & harpsichord to the dark and brooding Etude-Caprice pour un tombeau de Chopin for solo cello is a bit of shock but all this music is well worth getting to know.

Popular wisdom holds that Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony is his greatest but I have long thought that the Eighth is close contender. If the prospect of hearing the Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra under Mark Wigglesworth play the work doesn’t entice, then prejudices should be put aside for this is very well-played and recorded (on the BIS label). Wigglesworth’s interpretation is not "run-of-the-mill" either, he chooses slow tempi for all five movements and maintains tension and concentration well. I suspect I was rather more convinced by this reading than Colin Clarke (see link 13).

I am not sure how many SACD hybrids I have come across – perhaps 20 or so. These contain standard CD and SACD in different layers and are often billed as playable in "all CD players". Having not previously encountered any problems, my NAIM CD-5 player seemed to have trouble finding the CD layer of one of the Tudor Schubert discs I reviewed recently (link 14 – disc 7143). When I put the disc in it appeared to fail to register it at all (and this was consistent). If I then pressed play about 4 times it inconsistently started up and would then play the whole disc but it would not jump between tracks. The same disc behaved normally in another CD player. I decided that the chance of anyone else having the same problem with that disc must be very small and therefore it did not justify a mention in the review. Nevertheless I do wonder if others have encountered any similar problems with SACD hybrids?

Finally, classical music is certainly alive and well in Hertfordshire. Last weekend my wife and I drove a total of 235 miles to see two world première performances of symphonies written 100 years apart by Paul Adrian Rooke and Rutland Boughton. It proved well worth the effort – see review on Seen and Heard for details (link 15).

Patrick C Waller

Links

1. http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2005/Nov05/Scarlatti_sonatas_2564620922.htm

2. http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2005/Oct05/Martinu_songs_8557494.htm

3. http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2005/Mar05/webern1.htm

4. http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2005/Apr05/Webern_8557530.htm

5. http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2005/Oct05/zwilich_violin_concerto_8559268.htm

6. http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2005/Nov05/zwilich_8559268.htm

7.http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2005/Oct05/Chaminade_CDH55197.htm

8. http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2005/Nov05/Jaell_Cello_SOCD227.htm

9. http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2005/Nov05/Alkan_Organ_TOCC0030.htm

10. http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2005/Nov05/Balakirev_CHAN24129.htm

11. http://music.maxopus.com

12. http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2004/Mar04/Mahler105Barshai.htm

13. http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2005/Nov05/Shostakovich8_Wigglesworth_BISSACD1483.htm

14. http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2005/Nov05/Schubert_symphonies_Tudor7142_7143.htm

15. http://www.musicweb-international.com/SandH/2005/Jul-Dec05/boughton_rooke2611.htm

 

 



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