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MusicWeb Reviewer’s Log: May 2005

Reviewer: Patrick C Waller

Whenever Naxos issue a record by the Maggini String Quartet, they will certainly recoup a fiver from me unless I get lucky and Len sends me a review copy. This ensemble is becoming quite prolific in the studio in the cause of English chamber music. The standard of playing is invariably high and recent offerings have been as compelling as ever. Frank Bridge’s Second and Fourth Quartets complete that series in fine style (link 1 and 2) whilst the "Naxos" Quartets of Peter Maxwell Davies have reached Nos. 3 and 4 (link 3). As with the first two, these make for interesting listening and they are a highly contrasted pair. This series won’t be completed for a while; he is, I understand, still writing them and ten are planned.

After reading Evan Dickerson’s review, it was impossible for a Scarlatti sonata addict to resist buying Yevgeny Sudbin’s recent disc (link 4). Even though the warm approach here is very different, I enjoyed this just as much as the marvellous Andreas Staier set (played on the harpsichord) that I reviewed earlier this year (see link 5). The Gramophone rated Sudbin’s Scarlatti alongside Pletnev and Horowitz – discs that I treasure despite the metallic sound of the latter, and I wouldn’t argue with such comparison.

I have been continuing to explore the music of Rutland Boughton, in particular a wonderful bargain on the Hyperion Helios label featuring two string quartets from the 1920s (with Welsh and Greek programmatic overtones) and his first oboe quartet (see link 6 for a full review). Sarah Francis is the excellent soloist and the Rasumovsky quartet make a strong case for these neglected works.

Very gradually, I have also been getting to know Britten’s operas. Peter Grimes and Billy Budd have been favourites for some years - I find it hard to choose between the composer’s and Colin Davis’s versions of the former. Daniel Harding’s recording of the Turn of the Screw was a quite recent acquisition. The Decca recordings of the composer’s readings have since been issued in big bargain boxes. I was tempted but duplication was involved and, with some more modern recordings competing, decided against. The one opera Britten didn’t record was his last - Death in Venice – he was too ill and Steuart Bedford conducted for Decca; Pears, of course, took the leading role. Bedford made a suite of music from the opera which is well-worth hearing (there is a recording on Chandos which has been recently reissued – link 7) and I recall hearing his excellent complete version of the opera some years ago. Richard Hickox has just made a new version with Philip Langridge as Aschenbach (Chandos CHAN10280) and, having decided to invest in that, I have been highly impressed. One might wonder whether opera on CD is dying out (in favour of DVD) but hopefully not. There are times when it is preferable just to listen in the best possible sound. One feature of this set novel to me was the use of a slimline box for an opera – a space-saving but still superbly presented package. I have only listened to it once so far but I doubt that anyone buying this set will be disappointed.

Talking of watching opera on the "small" screen, in my last log I mentioned the BBC’s screening of just Act I of Wagner’s Die Walküre over Easter – the remainder being scuppered by Bryn Terfel being indisposed. As promised, they have just made amends by screening the whole opera with Terfel’s Wotan, and superb it was too. His assumption of this role is awesome, both visually and vocally, but there are other stars too – Lisa Gasteen’s Brünnhilde and Rosalinde Plowright’s Fricka – and the cast hardly has a weak link. The orchestral playing and Pappano’s vivid conducting are impressive too. The sets and production are uncontroversial. Siegfried is on the way and a television screening promised next year. Somehow I haven’t yet got around to watching the companion recording I made at Easter of Das Rheingold yet – must do so soon.

Last month I spent a few days relaxing in Cornwall. For reading material I took Malcolm Arnold: Rogue Genius by Anthony Meredith and Paul Harris (recently published by Thames/Elkin), which seemed appropriate given the time Arnold spent in Cornwall. This is an authoritative and beautifully illustrated take on a fascinating subject, perhaps the best biography I have ever read. Subtitled "The life and music of Britain’s most misunderstood composer" there is good content on both the musical and medical front, with many insights into the musical consequences of Arnold’s mental illness. Overall I was struck by the objectivity of this book. Given the difficulties between Arnold’s family and carers in latter life it would have been easy to take sides but Meredith and Harris seem to be scrupulously fair. I enjoyed a recent television documentary on Arnold’s life but this book makes a much deeper impression and will be essential reading for anyone interested in the composer.

Unfortunately, I omitted to take any of Arnold’s music with me, slotting a couple of discs of the music of Cornishman George Lloyd into the bag - the Fourth Symphony (conducted by the composer TROY 498) and Fourth Piano Concerto (played by Kathryn Stott AR004). Both these discs are on the Albany label and they are among the highlights of their recordings of all the composer’s symphonies and concertos. Unfortunately the first three piano concertos don’t seem to be available at the moment and the company haven’t yet collected the symphonies together in a box.

I also took along a set of Elizabeth Maconchy’s String Quartets (Forum FRC 9301). There are 13 in total, written over a span of more than 50 years (between 1933 and 1984), all relatively concentrated but powerfully expressed. For light relief there was Benjamin Frith playing John Field’s Nocturnes (two Naxos discs 8.550761 and 8.550762) and some very pleasant guitar music by Llobet (see links 8 and 9 for reviews) that had been gathering dust on the shelves since I reviewed the disc last September.

Finally, Arthur Butterworth’s article on élitism and classical music (link 10) is worth pondering. Responding to comments made by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies suggesting the danger of extinction, he argues that we should treasure classical music’s elitism. I don’t have a problem with that but it had better not die out!

Patrick C Waller













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