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MusicWeb Reviewer’s log: February/March 2009

Reviewer: Patrick C Waller 

The first half of January was spent virtually exclusively in the company of Messiaen, listening to his complete works via DG’s commemorative box (see review) - this was a very positive experience. On returning to “normality” I caught up with a couple of very different discs with positive reviews from MusicWeb colleagues – Marc-André Hamelin’s In a state of Jazz and the recent Sibelius orchestral collection from New Zealand conducted by Pietari Inkinen. Both were indeed very worthwhile with well-designed programmes, excellent playing and attractive sound. 

Aside from the above discs, almost all most of my listening to unfamiliar recordings has in the past couple of months come through downloading. There has certainly been a marked leap in the level of availability of classical recordings through this mechanism recently and prices are beginning to tumble. It felt as though I must be one of the last people left without an mp3 player but finally I fell for a neat little Sony gadget (NWZ-B135) costing about £30 which is as big as a memory stick, charges when in a USB port and hold 2 gigabytes. Files are simply dragged and dropped onto it via Windows explorer. The sound is pretty good too although it’s not powerful enough to be much use on an airplane – nothing to do with “interfering with aircraft systems” more the other way round!

In the UK, Amazon have become a major player in the download field overnight and they seem quite flexible in their pricing structure meaning that there are some considerable bargains on the site. One example is Nathalie Stutzmann’s Winterreise which is going for a mere £3 at the moment. As with other sites, there is some duplication of the same recordings – presumably with full-price previous issues – and their prices may be different (this one is also available for £6-79). Stutzmann probably has the lowest female voice ever to record the piece and is well-worth hearing although my allegiance to Christine Schäfer’s Onyx recording is not displaced (see review). Interestingly – and perhaps surprisingly – these two versions were the last two left standing in BBC Radio 3’s recent Building a Library review, with Schäfer taking the palm. A more recent issue of mostly well-known Schubert songs from Bernarda Fink is certainly in the same league and also available to download from Amazon UK for about half the cost of the full price disc.

Downloading is also opening up the possibility of acquiring rare recordings that one could only otherwise find in “second-hand” shops. Looking for recordings of Bach’s Two- and Three-Part inventions on Amazon UK I unexpectedly found Tatiana Nikolayeva’s recording for Olympia going for £5-99. I haven’t managed to find any other Olympia discs yet - that might reflect the limitations of their search facilities or my understanding of them! But I did find Ralph Kirkpatrick’s 1950s recordings of 53 Scarlatti sonatas previously issued on Urania and I would recommend these in preference to his later recordings for Archiv Production. Another 1950s recording I enjoyed was the Ninth symphony of Hovhaness which can be downloaded from Classicsonline for just £1-99.

Bohuslav Martinů is one of my favourite composers but the 50th anniversary of his death this year seems to be attracting relatively little attention. His six symphonies are great favourites and, having owned Järvi’s discs since they were first issued, I was keen to hear some competition. In terms of a complete cycle, Bryden Thomson’s version with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra seems to be the main rival and can be acquired in mp3 format for just £9-99 from the Classical Shop. I have still to hear the Fourth but initial impressions of the rest are favourable. Thomson is often more urgent than Järvi and the slow movements of the second and third seem surprisingly quick but there’s no denying the power of these readings. I saved the Fourth until last because I have heard a different version of it several times recently – Turnovsky on Apex. This is a bargain-priced disc and, although I did download it, I didn’t save money in doing so. Still it was worth every penny and the couplings of the Fourth Piano Concerto and Tre Ricercari are excellent too.

The other composer I have been majoring on is Bruckner and Amazon UK has some considerable bargains recordings of his music. Most notable are Wand’s Berlin series going at £3-16 per symphony, including the Eighth which runs to two CDs. That has been in my collection since it was issued but it was good to hear the Fourth and Fifth. The other conductor I have been catching up on is Celibidache, recently hearing for the first time his Munich recordings of the Symphonies Nos. 5, 7, 8 and 9 acquired from various sources, including Passionato. All these readings are as slow as they come yet they are magnificent. Making Wand seem urgent indeed, they defy logic and are completely compelling. The Eighth is the most extreme, running to 104 minutes – about a quarter of an hour longer than most and over half an hour longer than the quickest versions that I know.

Downloading is not all a “land of milk and honey”, whatever one thinks about mp3 sound quality. In the course of my Bruckner searches on Amazon UK I came across a recording of the Eighth by the “South German Philharmonic Orchestra” by an unnamed conductor. Expecting to be able identify him from this comprehensive Bruckner discography, I could not do so and therefore contacted the editor. Since he couldn’t immediately identify the recording either and it wasn’t available to him to download in the USA, I agreed to do so for identification purposes. Whilst doing this I noted that the finale supposedly ran for just over 2 minutes (!) and indeed it turned out to be that short but the track was of some baroque music. Nevertheless the first three movements were sufficient to identify the recording as being conducted by Bernhard Geuller and Amazon gave me my money back. I also got a refund from Passionato for Celibidache’s Bruckner 7 because of a loud momentary click at about 5 minutes into the first movement. They removed the recording from their site but it was also on Amazon UK and so I paid 79p in the hope of losing the click but to no avail. And finally, the last couple of seconds of the third movement of Sibelius’s Sixth Symphony conducted by Sakari Oramo was irritatingly missing from an Amazon UK download. They refunded my money and removed the disc I had downloaded but they left a duplicate of the Sixth only, so don’t download that. The relevant track lasts for 3:19 on Amazon and is timed at 3:20 elsewhere. So I downloaded just that track from Tesco for pennies but it was still curtailed and I have given up on that one. I did, however, get Oramo’s Tapiola and Seventh Symphony for nothing and the former in particular is impressive – see review.

Finally, I was interested to see that Nimbus have issued their Esterhazy Haydn symphony cycle in mp3 format on 8 CDs very cheaply – i.e. about £20-25. I won’t be buying it because I already have most of the discs but it does now seem like a sensible way to present large chunks of music so I hope it catches on. Having read Margarida Mota-Bull’s review of Richard Wigmore’s Pocket Guide to Haydn Book and her interview with the author, I couldn’t resist getting hold of it. At the moment I am part way through the biographical part and enjoying it very much. On 13-15 March 2009 in Southampton various local orchestras are performing all his symphonies in one weekend for Comic Relief – this is called the Haydathon. I hope to be there for part of it and the book will be in my pocket.

Patrick C Waller


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