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MusicWeb Reviewer’s Log: January 2006

Reviewer: Patrick C Waller

I seem to have been inundated with discs from Naxos recently. Pride of place goes to the complete set of Villa-Lobos’s Bachianas Brasileiras from Tennessee (link 1) which is now much the best way of acquiring all nine of these attractive and varied works. I also reviewed a worthwhile disc of symphonies for wind orchestra by Hovhaness (link 2). Kevin Sutton and Gwyn Parry-Jones were enthusiastic about the second instalment of Marin Alsop’s Brahms symphony cycle (links 3 and 4) and I would endorse their views. This is on a par with her excellent reading of the First Symphony and hopefully 2006 will bring us the rest of the cycle. Also from Naxos comes an unrecorded cantata by Vaughan Williams called Willow Wood beautifully sung by Roderick Williams and with various attractive couplings. No doubt it will be reviewed on MusicWeb soon – meanwhile John France has written about the launch (link 5). Michael Tippett’s first three piano sonatas (there are four in all) played by Peter Donohoe impressed Dominy Clements (link 6) and also sounded too good to miss. Finally, to date, my collection has been lacking anything by Vincent d’Indy but the Amici Ensemble’s disc of his Clarinet Trio has put that right. The eight pieces by Bruch for the same instrumentation (clarinet, cello and piano) is an attractive coupling. Christopher Fifield and Jonathan Woolf both enjoyed this disc (links 7 and 8).

At the premiere of Rutland Boughton’s First Symphony in November (link 9) I picked up a copy of the recently released disc of his songs. There is much fine singing from mezzo-soprano Louise Mott and they make for interesting listening. Rob Barnett and Em Marshall have written detailed and enthusiastic reviews (links 10 and 11).

The first weekend in December my wife and I were off to a reception for the newly-formed Friends of the English Music Festival (link 12) held at Hampton Court Palace. Never mind the maze outside, it was a tricky proposition finding the right room within the palace. When we did, the door was opened by pianist David Owen Norris who later gave an entertaining speech. It was also most interesting to meet Gramophone reviewer Nalen Anthoni.

One Friday evening before Christmas we went to recital in St. Peter’s Church, Portsmouth given by Robert Blanken (clarinet) and Karen Kingsley (piano) – together they are known as the Monington Duo. The cold prevailing conditions were not easy for them but they had put together an interesting programme and performed it admirably, sadly in front of a small audience. This was very fine duo playing and turned out to be a most worthwhile evening. The major works were sonatas by Saint-Saëns (a glorious work from late in his career), Ferdinand Ries and Alice Mary Smith. To finish, they played Johann Kalliwoda’s Morceau de Salon Op.229 – a phenomenal showpiece if ever there was one. The music of all the last three composers mentioned seems to be largely unknown – searching the web I could only find a single disc of the music of Alice Mary Smith (1839-1884) – on the Chandos label (CHAN10283). This contains two symphonies and an Andante for Clarinet which I suspect may be an orchestrated version of the slow movement of the sonata we heard. Her music was influenced by Mendelssohn but, on the evidence of her clarinet sonata, is occasionally more daring and it does not seem to deserve almost total neglect. Ries was a pupil of Beethoven and rather more of his music has been recorded, including a couple of Piano Concertos recently issued on Naxos (8.557638) which I shall be looking out for. Kalliwoda’s neglect is rather more understandable but, in the context we heard it, this was a good piece to round off the evening. This kind of event shows that you don’t need famous performers to hear enjoyable live music – the Monington Duo are local professional musicians and, if you live in the South of England, it would be worth keeping an eye open for their future recitals.

Also just before Christmas, it was impossible to miss the continuous Bach programming on Radio 3 during which they played all his surviving works in a ten day period (link 13). I rarely consult schedules and it was rather good to turn on the radio sometimes and know what is coming – i.e. Bach. I did get a shock once when turning on in the middle of a Stokowski transcription. For just a moment I thought I must be tuned to the wrong channel. I have also been listening to the first volume of John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach cantata pilgrimage (SDG101). This derives from an amazing undertaking to perform all the cantatas at the correct point in the church calendar during the year 2000 in various locations. Apparently DG were going to record it but pulled the plug at the last moment causing Gardiner to create his own label for the purpose. There is special aura about these discs which is apparent from the moment you put one of them on.

My review of Scarlatti’s complete sonatas performed by Scott Ross (link 14) has now progressed to about a third of the way through the 34 discs. I am still being amazed by the variety of Scarlatti’s invention and much enjoying Ross’s consistent interpretive approach.

The mammoth Scarlatti set now has serious competition for my attention from Hyperion’s complete Schubert song edition, surely the best Christmas stocking filler ever (see link 15 – then go to "October 2005 releases"). This runs to a grand total of 40 discs and occupies considerably more space than the Scarlatti because there are individual jewel cases, albeit of the slimline variety often used for DVDs. The need to provide texts probably underlies the reason for this – these are collected within a medium-size paperback book which is housed within the set. There are two important differences between the buying the complete set and collecting based on the individual discs – (1) the set is presented chronologically rather than based on themes and artists (2) detailed notes by Graham Johnson (the accompanist and artistic driving force behind the project) are not included in the complete set. Regarding the first difference, it is probably a case of "swings and roundabouts". It is a bit unusual to have a different artist for virtually every song (there were about 60 singers in total) as you progress along but I do not see this as a major problem. Whilst there is inevitably some potential for chronological debate, the ordering policy is so strict that the two parts of Winterreise are on separate discs (nowadays it is easy to forget that it was written in two parts). In respect of the second difference, this is a major loss although plans are afoot to collect the notes into a two-volume book. In practice, these notes were so extensive that often the booklet didn’t fit into the case and was easily damaged in the process. Not surprisingly, the complete set is much cheaper (about £150 versus £500 for the individual discs), not only reflecting bulk buying but this omission. Overall, I feel positive about the presentation and the book is enhanced by a Schubert calendar devised by Johnson which is used to place the songs in the context of Schubert’s life. The texts are in German and an English translation by Richard Wigmore and the print is about the normal size for a CD booklet (i.e. smallish but tolerable). There are good indexes which is important if you want to locate a particular song or artist.

How do you listen to a set like this which contains 850 individual items? Doubtless there are many ways to do so but starting at disc one and doing so systematically in the first instance seems the obvious one to me. I don’t expect to reach the end before the summer and I haven’t yet decided what to do about discs 38-40. This set is so complete it even contains three discs of songs by various contemporaries of Schubert. At the moment these three discs are not otherwise available but a release is planned in 2006. I doubt I shall resist the temptation to dip into them before too long!

Hyperion’s Schubert song set came about as a result of a conversation over dinner between Graham Johnson and the late Ted Perry, founder of the label. Asked what he most wanted to record, Johnson immediately said "all Schubert’s songs" and Perry immediately agreed. That was in 1985; recording started in 1987 and the 18 years which have since elapsed is exactly the time it took Schubert to write them. Over the years I have borrowed quite a few from a library but I only ever owned one – Bostridge singing the Die Schöne Mullerin cycle. From what I have heard and read about the project there seems little doubt that it is artistically of the highest excellence. Janet Baker recorded the first disc towards the end of her career and just listening to the first couple of discs, I have already come across her splendid Der Jüngling am Bache, as well as splendid contributions from Sir Thomas Allen, Ann Murray and Philip Langridge. There is no doubt that the singing cast is stellar indeed. One name is missing – Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau – although not completely since he reads unset text from Die Schöne Müllerin. This project was too late for him but his recordings of about 450 Schubert songs suitable for his voice have recently been re-released and enthusiastically reviewed by Anne Ozorio (link 16). I have known this for a long time from its previous incarnation and completely agree with her views. But in such a large project there are surely gains from involving different artists and Hyperion’s set is virtually without parallel in recording so many different singers. The consistent factor was Johnson’s accompaniment and the merits of this are apparent from the beginning of disc one. The recorded sound may well have some variations across the set but initial impressions are favourable – mellow and not at all "in your face". The final word (for the moment – doubtless I shall say more about it in future logs) should go to Schubert. Disc one contains D1a written at the age of 13 and several composition exercises. On paper, I was a bit worried that I might get bored with youthful Schubert and give up before I got to the great stuff. All such doubts were repelled early on the first disc – Schubert’s talent was already obvious. If you love Schubert’s songs and were not as lucky as me with your Christmas stocking, the options are the usual ones – beg, borrow or steal this set, and soon!

The beginning of the year is a time to reflect on the last one. I think 2005 was a good one for classical music recording. Browsing MusicWeb’s Records of the Year (link 17) might convince you and I certainly found it quite difficult to make a final choice of just five discs. Both the Scarlatti and Schubert sets would surely be among the records of the year if they hadn’t arrived too late. But it is not all blue skies and sunshine – Hyperion’s court case, Chandos’s downsizing and, just recently, Codaex going into receivership all illustrate the commercial difficulties involved in recording classical music. Let’s hope for a good year in 2006.

Patrick C Waller





















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