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MusicWeb Reviewer’s Log: February 2005

Reviewer: Patrick C Waller

I have been listening to quite a lot of Schubert recently and, in particular, Mitsuko Uchida’s recently released set of piano music for Philips (475 628-2). Although this takes up 8 (mid-price, neatly packaged) CDs, it is not complete in terms of the sonatas – all the late ones (i.e. Nos 13-21) are included plus three early ones (No 4 in A minor K537, No 7 in E flat D568 and No 9 in B major D575). Perhaps there is some logic involved relating to the completeness of individual works but, in practical terms, this is nowhere near a complete set, if that is what is required. There are compensations though, in terms of the 8 Impromptus, 3 Klavierstücke (wonderful late works which are not to be missed), 6 Moments musicaux and some Dances.

Overall, I feel a bit ambiguous towards Uchida’s Schubert. Generally tempi tend to be slow (for example the final "moment" takes more than 10 minutes!) and she overlays a lot of interpretation, most of which I warmed to. The piano certainly sings aplenty but she doesn’t underplay Schubert’s darker moments. Amongst the highlights are the 15th and 18th sonatas – these may still be available coupled together on a single disc in MusicWeb’s sale (see link 1). I saved the B flat sonata until the very end (it was Schubert’s last work for the piano and is surely one of the greatest ever written) but was disappointed for reasons that are hard to explain. Somehow I just wasn’t as engaged as I expected to be. The piano sound is by no means ideal and a bit bass heavy. These recordings were made in the main hall of the Musikverein in Vienna – too big a venue in my view. Uchida’s Schubert set is not the equal of her complete Mozart sonatas (which is fabulous in all respects) but will sit well alongside recordings I have already have (notably Kempff set of the sonatas and Lupu’s Impromptus).

Whilst on the subject of piano music, I was delighted to be asked to review a disc of Nazareth’s Tangos, Waltzes and Polkas (see link 2) played by Iara Behs on the Naxos label. I hadn’t heard of him previously but this is quite a find – undemanding but worthwhile listening. Zane Turner obviously enjoyed it too (link 3).

I thought it was about time I discovered what all the fuss was about with the recent disc of John Foulds’s music from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Sakari Oramo (see links 4-6). This was one of MusicWeb’s disc of the year for 2004 (link 7) and now I understand why. Recorded live, both the music and music-making have great impact. During the course of the disc there is a considerable range of musical ideas in different genres, making this an excellent introduction to the composer. For me the most striking work is the Three Mantras from Avatara, the lyricism of the second being sandwiched between two exceptionally powerful pieces of orchestral writing. The Lyra Celtica, a concerto for voice and orchestra (with mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley as the soloist) is also a gem. Foulds is clearly a composer whose music I should be exploring further.

Last month I mentioned my discovery of Dallapiccola’s choral music in a bargain box. This Italian composer seems to achieving wider recognition at the moment and I was pleased to discover some of his orchestral music on a recent Chandos disc with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Gianandrea Noseda (see link 8). I completely share John France’s enthusiasm for this disc. The music may be serial but, far from being a "pale imitation" of the Second Viennese school, to me this is the more acceptable face of serialism. If you don’t believe me, just visit the Chandos website sound booth and try a free sample of Tartiniana (link 9).

Having built up a collection of CDs over more than 20 years, quite a few discs that I bought in the early years have since been reissued. Sometimes it is difficult not to wish that you had waited a while because the reissue costs much less, contains more music or is reputed to have improved sound. One of my early CDs, originally put out in 1985, has just been reissued by Chandos - Britten’s Cello Symphony (with Rafael Wallfisch) and Death in Venice Suite, and it has received a very positive review from Peter Lawson (link 10). Of course, I immediately dug it out and I feel pretty sure that the sound can’t have got any better – my 20 year old disc is simply stunning in that respect (Chandos were undoubted leaders in sound quality in those days – others have now caught up). OK so it has a more attractive picture on the front now but, for once, I am happy to have the original. The symphony is pretty trenchant stuff, the suite much lighter. I see that Richard Hickox’s recording of the complete opera is just being released (on Chandos) and, not yet having a recording, will await the reviews with interest.

A different kind of rediscovery is the putting on of a disc for which, without any justification at all, you have forgotten how good it is. In this case I am thinking of the Naxos disc of orchestral music by the early 20th century US composer Griffes which Rob Barnett and Ian Lace reviewed about a year ago (see links 11 & 12). I snapped it up, listened a couple of times, was impressed and somehow forgot it until quite recently. The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan is the highlight but it is all great stuff and Griffes has a truly original voice.

From the same part of the world comes a disc called Swales and Angels by Beth Anderson (see link 13 for review). This struck me as possibly the most interesting thing in MusicWeb’s sale (link 1) so I made a bid and sorry – it’s now gone. But if you have heard it and like the music, you will be pleased to hear that more of this composer is on the way from the Albany label (called Quilt Music – songs and chamber works). No doubt this will be reviewed on MusicWeb soon.

Last month I caught a live radio broadcast of Wagner’s Das Rheingold from Covent Garden’s new production (see link 14 for Martin Hoyle’s review of a pre-Christmas performance). Before doing so I looked very hard at the TV schedules just to make sure that it could not also be seen (a pity). There was quite a lot of associated hype about Bryn Terfel’s first Wotan. Fortunately he seemed to have recovered from the throat infection which, just a week before, had caused him have to mime the part on stage (with the voice being provided from the pit by Donald McIntyre). Terfel generally lived up to the high expectations and we can but hope that this will get preserved on disc at some stage. The rest of the cast was generally impressive (Philip Langridge as Loge and Rosalind Plowright as Fricka is certainly luxury casting) although, for me, Günther von Kannen’s Alberich was a little disappointing (unlike Andrew Shore in the recent ENO production he did not steal the show as well as the gold). Pappano’s reading was highly dramatic with excellent orchestral playing – musically this was a cut above the ENO’s Rhinegold.

My bargain of the moment is the set of Erato’s Jolivet recordings (link 15 for Hubert Culot’s review), many of them with the composer at the helm. Four discs for the price of one, reasonable sound from the 1960s and a dazzling array of artists. I was drawn to this for the cello music initially (the 2nd concerto is played by Rostropovich) but Maurice André’s Trumpet and Jean-Pierre Rampal’s Flute provided more rewarding listening. There is also a three movement Concerto for the Ondes Martenot (played by Jeanne Loriod) and the set ends with five delightful songs. Experience suggests that this kind of package doesn’t stick around for long so, if you are interested, my advice is to take the plunge soon.

MusicWeb regulars can hardly have missed Marin Alsop’s venture into the world of Brahms and her newly-released disc of the 1st symphony and overtures. Four reviews were published simultaneously and a fifth has followed with reactions that were invariably positive (see links 16-20). One trivial point which struck me was the use of an outer cardboard sleeve. I presume this is designed to make one feel that it is a luxury item. It is a pity that this was then spoilt by a picture of less than half of the conductor’s face on the front. I think that the animated picture on the back would have been far preferable fronting this one.

I was pleased to be able to see more of Marin Alsop live with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in Portsmouth just a few days later. Both the BBC’s website and the concert programme indicated that this was to be broadcast subsequently on Radio 3. A lack of visible microphones made me suspicious of that and it turned out that it was the Poole rendition of the same concert, given two days earlier, that was aired. The concert began with a very spritely rendition of Beethoven’s 1st symphony, following which Stephen Kovacevich played two Bach Concertos (in D minor BWV1052 and F minor BWV 1056). In an unusual bit of programming these were placed either side of the interval. Unfortunately, this was the least successful part of the concert. Soloist and conductor failed to connect and Alsop seemed rather unenthusiastic about Bach. The balance was marred by too many strings and the performances lacked intimacy. I didn’t hear the whole of the broadcast concert but the balance in the Bach works seemed markedly preferable on the radio from Poole than live in Portsmouth. The F minor Concerto came across better than the D minor and Kovacevich’s reading of that slow movement had great presence. Overall, though, he didn’t seem to be on top form. For Alsop, all was forgiven in Elgar’s Enigma Variations – a highly characterized but controlled reading which brought out the many facets of this work. No worries about her reproducing Bernstein’s legendary drag through Nimrod – pacing was superb throughout.

I end on a sad note. At the end of last year two famous divas passed on. Renata Tebaldi seems to have received greater obituary space but the voice of Victoria de los Angeles was more familiar to me and a great favourite. Her recordings of Mimi in La Bohème with Beecham and of the Songs of the Auvergne are particularly treasured. Gone but, thanks to recordings such as these, they won’t be forgotten.

Patrick C Waller























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