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Reviewerís Log: a Summer Retrospect

With the choir in which I sing on summer break for a couple of months there has been a bit more time than usual for listening in recent weeks.

A good number of new discs have come my way, partly through reviewing duties and partly as a result of my own purchases. However, Iíve also been indulging in some retrospective purchasing. This has been prompted by the impending closure of the local CD dealership where Iíve spent a considerable (some might say excessive) amount on CDs over the last 18 years or so. Audiosonic in Gloucester is closing at the end of September when the present owner retires. Itís no doubt a sign of the times Ė and a sad one - that no buyer could be found to carry on the business. So after well over 20 years yet another city in the UK will cease to be served by a shop that specialises in classical CDs. Of course, there are a number of excellent mail order companies but though they offer efficient service and prices that are often very keen, they canít offer the pleasure of the browsing experience.

Among the new CDs I bought was Lynne Dawsonís admirable and stylish recital of mélodies for Berlin Classics, entitled Voyage à Paris (0017582BC). Splendidly partnered by pianist Julius Drake, Miss Dawson offers a pleasing range of mélodies, including a generous helping of Poulenc, which is always welcome. Lynne Dawson has long been one of my favourite singers though on disc at least we havenít heard enough of her outside the baroque repertoire. This new disc, and her earlier fine offering of English song for Hyperion, On this Island (CDA67227), happily redresses the balance somewhat.

Mention of Hyperion reminds me that this label seems to be on something of a roll currently, even by their lights. Two fine discs, one of them outstanding in fact, came my way for review over the summer. The third volume (of a projected four) of the complete mélodies of Fauré maintained the high standards of its predecessors (review). Even more exciting was the new release of James MacMillanís Seven Last Words from the Cross. This is a work of exceptional eloquence and no little power. Superbly performed by Polyphony and the Britten Sinfonia under Stephen Layton, I have absolutely no doubt that this will be one of my Recordings of the Year for 2005 (review).

Before leaving vocal music and Hyperion I must mention one of the catch-up discs that was sneaked into the house this summer. There could scarcely be a greater contrast than that between James MacMillan and Emmanuel Chabrier. By chance I came across a cutting that Iíd saved of a review by Michael Kennedy of Hyperionís two-disc complete survey of Chabrierís mélodies. The set bears the utterly appropriate title Musique Adorable! (CDA67133/4). The inspiration is a bit uneven at times and Chabrier doesnít aspire to the depths of, say, Fauré. However, for pure musical pleasure these songs take some beating and with artists of the calibre of Dame Felicity Lott on hand the standard of performance is consistently high. Like the Fauré series, the presiding genius behind this set was Graham Johnson, which guarantees not just excellent piano accompaniments but superb notes.

Iím glad I discovered these Chabrier songs. I probably wouldnít have done so without the prompting of Michael Kennedyís enthusiasm. He has just retired from his weekly review column on the Sunday Telegraph, though, happily, he will continue to write for the paper, albeit less regularly. Mr. Kennedy is one of the most readable and authoritative of critics of his generation and for me he possesses the happy gift, all-too rare in a critic, of making his reader want to hear immediately the piece of music about which he is writing. His retirement from regular reviewing is a significant event. I canít be alone in noting it with regret for he has made a major contribution to musical criticism and literature in the UK and beyond during his career. It is good news that he has two new books in preparation.

Two splendid archive discs from the Orfeo label of recordings by Dimitri Mitropoulos came my way. One is new to the catalogue but the other has been available for some time. The newcomer (C 627 041 B) enshrines the conductorís debut concert at the Salzburg Festival in August 1954. He conducts the Vienna Philharmonic in Prokofievís Fifth symphony. This has much to commend it but, in the last analysis, is a slightly disappointing affair. All Mitropoulosís drive and fire are present but the VPO sound a bit tentative. Perhaps they were unfamiliar with the score? The real reason for acquiring this CD, however, is an incandescent account of Schumannís Second symphony. This is a work that meant a great deal to Mitropoulos and he leads a quite astonishing performance, full of conviction and insight. The members of the VPO must have played this score many times but Iím sure they can never have played it like this. Hear this performance and be reminded that Schumannís Second symphony is a masterpiece!

So great an impression did Mitropoulos make on Wilhelm Furtwängler during his first appearance at Salzburg that the German maestro was instrumental in securing him a return invitation to the festival. On August 15, 1956, Mitropoulos conducted a simply staggering account of the Berlioz Grand Messe des Morts at the Festival, dedicating the performance to the memory of the recently-deceased Furtwängler. Orfeo issued this recording back in 1997, I believe, (C 457 971 B) but unaccountably Iíve missed it until now. There are some problems of execution. The chorus, and the sopranos in particular, are fallible. However, tenor soloist Leopold Simoneau is first class and the blemishes in the choral singing cannot dim the ardour of the performance. Mitropoulos confirms his credentials as a Berlioz interpreter of immense stature with this superb reading of Berliozís visionary score.

Mention of Berlioz reminds me of another great interpreter of his music, Sir Thomas Beecham. Iíve just acquired a 2-disc Sony set containing all his Berlioz recordings for CBS (Sony Classical 515300 2). This includes his 1953/4 account of the Te Deum, the workís first recording I believe. This is a splendid version, with Alexander Young a sensitive tenor soloist. The recording wears its years incredibly lightly. The same is true of Beechamís 1951 traversal of Harold in Italy in which he is joined by another splendid soloist, on this occasion William Primrose. Beecham is perhaps a more swashbuckling interpreter of Berlioz than Sir Colin Davis but he had a real feel for this highly original composer. These performances are all excellent and the set, which also includes a number of overtures, is an unmissable bargain.

Back with new issues, I have been following Peter Donohoeís series of British Piano Concertos for Naxos with great interest. Added to that, I admire the music of William Alwyn very much. So Donohoeís new disc of Alwynís Piano Concerti had to be on the purchase list. I completely share the enthusiasm of Tony Haywood and Rob Barnett for this release. The total neglect of the Second concerto is especially mystifying. This Donohoe series goes from strength to strength and is a significant feather in the Naxos cap. I endorse just as strongly Rob Barnettís enthusiastic welcome for the first disc in the Naxos cycle of Alwynís symphonies (review). I hadnít heard the concertos before but all three works on this other disc were familiar to me, in the case of the Second and Fifth symphonies from the composerís own Lyrita readings (rightly praised by Rob) and in the case of the wonderfully luminous and strongly-profiled Lyra Angelica from the very good recording in the Hickox/Chandos survey. All three works on this new Naxos CD are extremely fine and as rewarding as they are approachable. They get fresh and committed performances from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and David Lloyd-Jones. Add to the excellence of the performances very good engineering and notes on the music by the composer himself and you have all the ingredients for an unmissable issue. I await further releases in this series impatiently, especially the Third symphony, my own favourite.

I also invested in Bernard Haitinkís new recording of Brucknerís Eighth symphony. For this he returns to direct the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra on its own label of live recordings. This version was taped at performances earlier this year. I donít think it supplants existing recommendations but itís still a first rate performance, distinguished by the integrity, musicianship and complete affinity with Brucknerís music that we have come to associate with this fine conductor (review).

Haitink has been identified for years as a leading interpreter of the Austro-German repertoire but his long career in the UK has encouraged him also to explore English music. Over a long period of time (1984-2000) he recorded a cycle of the Vaughan Williams symphonies for EMI. I bought some of these (Sea Symphony, A London Symphony and Sinfonia Antartica) when they first came out and I admired them very much but the remainder escaped my attentions, probably because my shelves already groan under an embarrassing number of recordings of the RVW symphonies. However, the chance to acquire the whole cycle in an EMI box of seven CDs for £21.00 (5 86026 2) proved to be too great a temptation. In general, I think Haitink is more successful in the more reflective works. His Pastoral and Fifth, for example, are beautiful. Heís also very fine in the London Symphony but to my ears the turbulent Fourth in particular doesnít have quite the punch and thrust that it needs. Sea Symphony is a wonderful, heart-warming creation but it needs a firm hand on the tiller if the structure is not to sag. The same powers of concentration that make Haitink so successful in Bruckner serve him well here and I was delighted to renew my acquaintance with this splendid recording. EMI gave Haitink superb sound throughout the cycle and this box is graced by a splendidly readable and authoritative essay by Michael Kennedy. Though this cycle doesnít shake my allegiances to Handley or Boult itís a fine achievement and at the current price itís almost an indecent bargain.

Iíve deliberately left to last the outstanding item among the past releases that Iíve caught up with over the summer. In 2004 DG issued a two-disc set containing live recordings by Claudio Abbado of Debussyís La Mer and Mahlerís Resurrection Symphony (00289 477 5082 GH2). These were live performances, taped at the Lucerne Festival in 2003 by the Festivalís eponymous orchestra, a handpicked group, many from the Berlin Philharmonic, and containing some of the finest players in Europe. These are quite astonishing performances. Abbado conveys the sweep and drama of Mahlerís vast fresco superbly. He may not quite storm the heavens in the way that some conductors do but itís still a thrilling performance, made still more thrilling by the playing, which consistently attains the utmost heights of virtuosity. This is one of the finest accounts of the symphony Iíve heard in many years. In the Debussy the playing is finer still, if thatís possible. Abbado and his players recreate Debussyís imaginative canvasses with consummate skill. Even more than in the Mahler, many tiny details that often go unremarked in performance emerge as if new-minted to excite the listener. Yet one is never conscious that this is a micro-managed performance, just delighting in detail and virtuosity for its own sake. No, this is the genuine article. A superb, vital performance caught on the wing. This is an outstanding set and Iím kicking myself that itís taken me so long to hear it.

Of course, in the UK the musical summer is dominated by the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts. There were well over seventy this year and as usual the BBC, noble sponsors of the season, broadcast the lot. One can easily carp at the Proms Ė the omission of music by a wide variety of British composers is one perennial complaint. Also, inevitably, not all the concerts reach the heights. However Iíve heard some fine concerts and itís evident from the press reviews that there have been other excellent concerts that I have missed (or have chosen to miss!) For me, the highlights came at the beginning and end of the season. Mark Elder conducted his Hallé forces in a very fine performance of The Dream of Gerontius. As I remarked to my wife during the Demonís Chorus, Barbirolli would have been proud of the Hallé Choir. This was an urgent, red-blooded reading, emphasising, perhaps, Elderís operatic credentials. There were occasions when I thought his speeds were a bit too fast but for the most part I thought his interpretation was a fine and idiomatic one He had a quite splendid Gerontius in Paul Groves, an American tenor, I believe, who I hadnít heard before. He made a superb ringing sound in the more heroic passages but was also sensitive in the many more intimate stretches. Though he carried a score he scarcely glanced at it; in fact, his eye contact with the audience was extraordinary and enhanced his performance. If, as I hope, Elder is planning to record the work for the Halléís own label as part of his ongoing Elgar series I trust Groves will be engaged and so too Alice Coote, who was a fine and involving Angel.

A few days earlier had come the Royal Operaís concert performance of Die Walküre. The big attraction here was the belated Proms debut of Placido Domingo as Siegmund. Domingo is quite amazing for a man in his sixties and he sang superbly. The performance also featured Bryn Terfelís extraordinarily vivid portrayal of Wotan. But despite these two excellent performances itís arguable that the show was stolen by Waltraud Meierís shatteringly intense portrayal of Sieglinde. The other plaudits must go to the splendid playing of the ROH orchestra and the electrifying and dramatic conducting of Antonio Pappano.

Towards the end of the season there was the annual and welcome influx of visiting orchestras from overseas. I was abroad when the Cleveland Orchestra came to town, though I noted that the critical reception was cool. However, I made sure I got home in time for the visit of Mariss Jansons and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Thank goodness I did for I wouldnít have missed for anything their shattering account of Mahlerís Sixth symphony, nor the splendid Brahms First symphony which concluded their second prom. Here we have a world-class orchestra, currently on top of its form and inspired by a marvellous conductor. What more can one ask?

The end of the Proms heralds the changing of the seasons. The summer is over, autumn and the rugby union season are upon us and Englandís cricketers have wrested the Ashes from the Australians at long last. The 2005/6 concert season has begun and CD collectors and reviewers alike await the record companiesí pre-Christmas release lists with excitement and anticipation. Happy listening!

John Quinn


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