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MusicWeb Reviewer’s log: December 2007

Reviewer: Patrick C Waller

First I must mention Hyperion’s Bantock set of 6 CDs of mainly orchestral music recorded by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Vernon Handley between 1990 and 2003 (CDS 44281/6). This is full of interesting works beautifully played, recorded and presented. It is also inexpensive – I paid less than £30. Even in a year of amazing bargain boxes, this one is hard to beat. Last month I had just heard Bantock’s Omar Khayyám for the first time and was pondering whether it might be one of my records of the year. A second listen and I was convinced – my other choices and those of all MusicWeb colleagues are now available here for your perusal - 2007 was a good year I would say.

2006 wasn’t bad either and I am still catching up! This time last year both Rob Barnett and David Barker chose a disc of string music by Atterberg. After traversing and enjoying his nine symphonies this was the obvious next stop and very fine it is too.

Other discs I have particularly enjoyed recently are the first in a series of Martinů concertos for Violin and Orchestra from Hyperion and Finzi’s Clarinet and Cello Concertos on Lyrita. I remember Yo Yo Ma’s recording from LP days and suspect that this was my introduction to the composer – it was wonderful to hear it again. John Denman’s performance of Clarinet Concerto is in the same league, making this one of the label’s most desirable releases even in a most competitive field.

In a review published in 2002, Rob Barnett wrote: “Karel Ančerl was something of a hero to any students on a strangulated budget in the 1970s”. As such a student I remember him too – LPs of Dvořák’s Violin Concerto with Josef Suk and Shostakovich’s 5th symphony particularly sticking in the mind. Quite by chance I discovered that these are available mid-price on Supraphon (the catalogue numbers are SU 3668-2 011 and SU 3699-2 011 respectively) – and they are beautifully presented too. The performances are as good as I remember but what is different is the sound – an amazing transformation from some rather cloudy LPs. They are so good that you simply wouldn’t believe when these recordings were made if you didn’t know. Thus I also decided to invest in the 5th and 6th symphonies of Martinů from the same source (SU 3694-2 001) – yet more evidence of an amazing collaboration with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

But these days I am trying to stop buying discs - roughly the equivalent of giving up smoking, I imagine - in favour of streaming music off the internet, mostly from the Naxos Music Library. Amongst discs I have heard there are the concluding part of Marin Alsop’s excellent Brahms  cycle – a splendid fourth, as Dominy Clements says. But where the library really comes into its own is with less familiar music. Kuhlau is a composer I know only through occasional hacks at his piano sonatas from a battered manuscript and, like Robert Hugill, I was surprised how good his flute trios were – these are for three flutes in case you thought otherwise. I am not sure I had heard a note of Hungarian composer Rózsa before but his Violin Concerto is worth a listen as is a disc of Rorem’s Second Piano Concerto and Cello Concerto.

I can also report briefly on some very decent Naxos discs not yet reviewed on the site – this is one of the advantages of streaming i.e. instant access to new releases. The Violin Concerto by Kraus (8.570334) is like a piece of undiscovered Mozart and second volumes of Bax’s Violin Sonatas (8.570094) and Canteloube songs – not only from the Auvergne – sung by Véronique Gens (8.570338) are also very useful additions to the catalogue. The first six of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies in their orchestral form are relative rarities these days but also worth hearing (8.570230).

All the discs mentioned in the paragraph above are actually from Naxos but it is important to realise that there is an awful lot else available in their library. For example, I was intrigued to discover a disc of Tomasso Giordani’s Harpischord Concertos on the Dynamic label (CDS428). I have known for a long time the Concerto in C from a recording by Maria Teresa Garatti with I Musici on Philips but I had no idea what else he had written. This two-disc set includes nine of his Harpischord Concertos played by Rita Peiretti, Op. 23 No. 2 being the one with which I was familiar. I am afraid Ms. Peiretti’s relatively ponderous approach is not a patch on Garatti in the finale but Giordani’s harpsichord concertos – dating from the second half of the eighteenth century – are worth exploring.

Another example of an unfamiliar name I discovered there is the French composer of Polish origin Alexandre Tansman whose symphonies are appearing on Chandos label, the recordings being made in Australia. The symphonies Nos. 7, 8 and 9 on CHSA5054 particularly grabbed my attention. There is also an attractive disc of guitar music on Marco Polo (8.223690).

Pick of the releases for me on the primarily historical Pristine Classical site this month has been the live recording of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony which Bruno Walter made in 1953 with the NBC symphony orchestra several years after his famous NYPO studio version. Not only is the sound far superior but Irmgard Seefried sings much more memorably than Desi Halban in the finale. Even a slightly bronchial audience cannot spoil such an important document.

On Remembrance Sunday I was riveted to the radio listening to Foulds’ World Requiem being performed for the first time for over 80 years. I have since heard it again using BBC Radio 3’s listen again facility and eagerly anticipate its January release on Chandos. If that isn’t someone’s disc of the year in 2008 I shall be surprised.

The only truly live music I have heard this month was a concert given by the newly-formed Per Piacere Chamber Orchestra in Botley Market Hall, an intimate venue and one that, unusually, I was to able to walk to. About twenty enthusiastic musicians did a fine job with two Haydn symphonies (Nos. 83 and 85), the first of Mozart’s so called Salzburg symphonies (K.136), and concertos by Vivaldi and C.P.E. Bach. Conductor Paul Ingram has made a name for himself in Hampshire music circles with larger, more modern works but seemed equally at home in this repertoire, coaxing animated playing throughout. Leader Chris Knox contributed some fine solo work in the Vivaldi – one of the shorter concertos from the attractive L’Estro Armonico set (RV310). I had never heard the Orchestral Concerto in D by C.P.E. Bach before and haven’t been able to trace the work precisely yet. The first movement would almost pass for the work of his father but a sneaky look at the score in the interval failed to prove illuminating and a search of Grove was unproductive. A pity because I would like to hear it again.

In contrast to my enthusiasm for streaming off the internet, not being an i-Pod owner I have thus far been pretty resistant to the charms of downloading. Where I feel it might have a place for me is in obtaining things that I couldn’t otherwise easily hear. For example, I had never heard Schubert’s 7th Symphony in E which was reconstructed about 15 years ago by Brian Newbould and recorded by Neville Marriner as part of his ultra-complete cycle. Of course, that is available on CD but only in a 6 CD set. I have the other Newbould completions on a Hyperion disc conducted by Charles Mackerras and several versions of all the other symphonies. So it’s hard to justify buying the whole set just to hear one work. Inspired by the online music overview which David Barker has recently prepared I fairly quickly found that this work was available for download from Classics and Jazz. The site has quite a large swathe of the Universal catalogue available and seems reasonably easy to use. Unless you sign up for the “Dress Circle”, something I was reluctant to do immediately, downloaded files are subject to DRM – essentially limitations on what you can do in terms of further copying. These don’t seem to me to be a significant drawback to legitimate use but they do involved getting a licence to use the material after you have downloaded, something not well explained on the site. Indeed, if your computer doesn’t have the latest version of Windows Media Player (WMP), then you might not initially be able to even play the file – this was what happened to me. After I upgraded WMP the licence was obtained with one click and all was fine. Even though the file format is “wma” Windows Media Player will burn a CD without problems and the sound quality I obtained was truly excellent. The music too lived up to my expectations. The cost was £5-6 for a work lasting just under 40 minutes.

Having browsed around download sites a bit further there are other things I might be tempted by in future but I have to say I find the pricing policies hard to understand. Staying with Classics and Jazz for a moment – prices generally seem to be no cheaper than buying on CD. Bearing in mind you get no documentation (not necessarily true elsewhere) and may need to burn a CD, I had expected downloading to be somewhat cheaper. The Marriner set alluded to above costs almost £40 to download and is certainly available for less on CD. As far as I can see the only current pluses for downloading are instant gratification and being able to “pick and mix” from sets. But just look at the cost of Bernard Haitink’s Mahler cycle in terms of buying an individual work (or track). OK I know that these recordings are now seriously unfashionable, but I have long admired the cycle and I still have the LPs but no facility to play them. To buy just one of the works – the Sixth – as a download costs over £15 and the last movement alone costs £5-29. I doubt that there is much demand for either and a realistic price for this version of the work would perhaps be about half of what is being asked. Interestingly, which has quite a lot of Sony material asks for about $8-50 in total for Bernstein’s more highly-rated first recording of the same work if you purchase the 4 tracks separately but it appears to want $19-99 to buy the whole “album”! On both sites, Mahler’s Eighth is split up into to lots of tracks and I would have serious doubts that it would be easy to get them to play continuously after downloading – Windows Media Player seems to add pauses between tracks whether you like it or not.

Finally, I was sorry but not surprised to see Gramophone make a big blunder on the front cover of the November issue. They had interviewed Vernon Handley who supposedly said about Bantock that “his literary mind was easily the equal of Wagner's". Deciding to put that on the front cover they had "Bantock's mind was easily the equal of Wagner's" - just one word out but it makes a lot of difference.

Patrick C Waller



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