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DECEMBER 2011/2: DOWNLOAD ROUNDUP

Brian Wilson

The previous roundup - December 2011/1 - is available here. The index to all earlier roundups is here.

Download of the Month

Havergal BRIAN (1876-1972)

Symphony No. 1 in d minor The Gothic (1919-27) [106:07]
Susan Gritton (soprano), Christine Rice (mezzo), Peter Auty (tenor), Alastair Miles (bass), The Bach Choir, BBC National Chorus of Wales, Brighton Festival Chorus, Côr Caerdydd, CBSO Youth Chorus, Eltham College Boys’ Choir, Huddersfield Choral Society, London Symphony Chorus, Southend Boys’ and Girls’ Choirs
BBC National Orchestra of Wales; BBC Concert Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins
rec. live, 17 July 2011, Royal Albert Hall, London
HYPERION CDA67971/2 [54:07 + 60:41] – from hyperion-records.co.uk (mp3 and lossless)

[‘This recording of The Gothic is very good indeed – the best yet – and captures a sensational amount of detail in a performance that resets the clock. Hyperion have done us proud. The only jangling note is the cover which just isn’t Hyperion but everything else is "comme il faut". Recording of the Month. See review by Rob Barnett and Christopher Gunning’s review of the concert.]

I gave this a brief review at the end of the previous Roundup. Since then its value as a download has been increased by Hyperion’s decision to make the final nine minutes of applause free of charge, thereby reducing the download price to £12.49 in all three formats, mp3, flac or alac.

What a bold move to set your career in motion with a first symphony that outdoes Beethoven’s Ninth and Mahler’s Eighth, the ‘Symphony of a Thousand’, in size and scope and, like them, includes a long choral movement, in this case setting the Te Deum. The quotation from Goethe’s Faust on the title page even seems to force us to make the Mahler connection. I know the result isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and it’s not music to which I yearn to return on a regular basis, but neither are the two better-known works that I’ve mentioned. An occasional visit to any of the three is invigorating and Martyn Brabbins and his team have given us the ideal way to do it.

The booklet contains forewords by Martyn Brabbins and Roger Wright, controller of Radio 3 and an informative note from Calum MacDonald. The translation of the Te Deum is much more accurate than the version in the Book of Common Prayer but its pedestrianism serves to remind us of the glory of Cranmer’s prose.

Recording the work must have been almost as monumental an achievement as this, the first of his 32 symphonies, was for Brian himself. I understand that Hyperion had their eye on recording the work at the Proms, or at least using the BBC’s own recording, for months in advance. In the event they had to make do with editing the BBC recording – good as that was, the time and effort taken have clearly resulted in a great improvement on the broadcast.

I listened on the night in DAB on the same set-up in my study which I use as my primary system for reviewing purposes. The Arcam Solo at the heart of that system has both DAB and FM tuners. I normally listen during the day in DAB to be in sync with the Pure Radio in the kitchen and forgot to change the aerial – just about my only criticism of the Solo is its one aerial input: to change from your DAB to your FM aerial you need to unscrew the fiddly F-connector and screw on the other aerial, which I didn’t do in time for the broadcast. Radio 3 in 192 kb/s DAB is no match for Hyperion’s lossless download, which is superb.

There have been earlier, pioneering recordings: Marco Polo’s was valuable as more than a stop-gap and it’s held the field for a long time now – reissued on Naxos 8.557418/9 and available for download in mp3 from classicsonline.com. The booklet comes with the deal and the download is less expensive than the Hyperion, but the new performance is more effective and the Hyperion download, in lossless as well as mp3, is superior. The 1966 Boult performance remains available on Testament SBT21454: there’s an 11:30 excerpt on YouTube here.

Geoff Molyneux has also been listening to the Gothic:

This new recording from the 2011 Proms of Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony is a fantastic achievement and great credit must go to all concerned with its production. Much has already been written about this work so I will just make a few comments on the music and the performance.

What a fearsome, dramatic and arresting beginning, warlike and cataclysmic in tone. But after only one minute, the mood suddenly changes as a peaceful and reflective melody for a solo violin is introduced. This section, with its harp and wind accompaniment seems reminiscent of early Schoenberg, and we already seem to be embarking on a journey through unrelated and different styles of music. There is so much that is really imaginative in Brian’s work, many strokes of genius, for example the organ entry a few bars from the end of the movement. Like Mahler, Brian is able to produce chamber music quality amidst all this noisy and often stormy music.

The second movement begins slowly but ominously at a moderate tempo with a Wagnerian sense of doom. There are one or two moments when I feel that I am in Niebelheim! There is plenty of opportunity for individual instruments to shine, and we hear some beautiful playing from cor anglais, bassoon and double bassoon. As in the first movement, we are subjected to some stormy, violent and powerful music, but after some almost Messiaen-like rhythmic chords the music subsides to more gentle chording, and the movement concludes with the softest imaginable sound from a lone bass clarinet.

In movement 3 Bruckner is instantly recognisable, but not for long. The momentum is abruptly lost as we move into quiet music. Equally suddenly, a more violent passage ensues until a solo violin calms things down. Then we have a short-lived Straussian section, so this is music of sudden and unexpected contrasts. What an extraordinary sound towards the end with some crazy xylophone music with weird and wonderful accompaniment.

The fourth movement has some very complex music, so much so that there are passages where the texture is so dense it is fortunate that we already know the text of the Te Deum, [it’s in the booklet if you don’t: BW] because there is no chance of hearing the words. But these are contrasted with almost simplistic, tonal brass fanfares and single melodic lines and homophonic passages where the text stands out loud and clear.

Similarly, movements five and six are hugely complex at times with so much going on that it becomes impossible to hear anything other than a muddy mess. Then all of a sudden there comes a very simple passage where I can hear everything. The extraordinary vocal la, la, la section is very telling and imaginative, especially after so much frightening music.

Movement six begins with a beautifully played oboe d’amore melody and this recurs later. I am not so keen on Peter Auty’s rather strained sounding tenor, but Susan Gritton and Alastair Miles are excellent in this movement. Once again there is a huge mixture of styles with lots of detailed interest. The huge orchestral crescendos leading to the vocal entries at non confundar must be amongst the most shattering in all music.

The recording copes magnificently with the colossal sound produced here, but we can also made aware so clearly of all the strands of counterpoint in real detail in the more contrapuntal passages. We can for example appreciate much beautiful playing from individual woodwind players as well as lovely and sensitive, well-balanced chording from the brass. Great credit is due to the sound engineers for such an achievement.

The Gothic Symphony is a great curiosity rather than a great work, full of original ideas and certainly worth an occasional airing, but I think there is also much unmemorable music here and the violent contrasts in mood and style seem to build a very incoherent whole. Brian is an undoubted master of orchestration and vocal writing in a wide variety of styles. He produces occasional passages of great interest and beauty. I am often reminded of other composers as the work progresses, and suggestions and touches of Bruckner, Mahler, Holst, Strauss, Delius and many others abound. What is so extraordinary is the prophetic nature of things to come in Brian’s music. For example, in the vocal sections, sometimes he seems to be anticipating Britten, Tippett and Walton.

This music is vast in scale and all involved have produced a performance and recording which may never be bettered. I am not sure that I will listen to it very often though. Unlike the composers mentioned above, this is music I can happily live without but with perhaps just an occasional airing.

Geoffrey Molyneux

The latest, second volume in Toccata’s series of Havergal Brian’s Orchestral Music, music from his operas, is now available on TOCC0113 [70:55]: download in mp3 from toccataclassics.com and soon, I presume, from classicsonline.com and Naxos Music Library. The comprehensive booklet of notes is available with the purchase. The music is quite different from the Gothic but these Toccata releases are also important. I’ve had time for only one quick but enjoyable run-through, so I’ll reserve my detailed comments for next time.

Discovery of the Month

Wilhelm STENHAMMAR (1871-1927)
Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2
Piano Concerto No.2 in d minor, Op.23 (1907) [25:52]
Piano Concerto No. 1 in b flat minor, Op.1 (1893/4) [42:02]
Niklas Sivelöv (piano)
Malmö Symphony Orchestra/Mario Venzago – rec. August 2009. DDD
Pdf booklet included.
NAXOS 8.572259 [67:57] – from classicsonline.com (mp3)

The Romantic Piano Concerto series, Vol. 49
Piano Concerto No. 1 in b flat minor, Op.1 (1893/4) [45:53]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in d minor, Op.23 (1907) [29:21]
Seta Tanyel (piano)
Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Manze – rec.2008. DDD.
Pdf booklet included
HYPERION CDA67750 [75:16] – from hyperion-records.co.uk (mp3 and lossless)

[‘Two leonine concertos of the Scandinavian romantic persuasion ready not merely to enchant but also to impress with their epic mien. They stand as companions for the first time on a single freestanding disc. A logical choice in performances of total engagement.’ See review of the Hyperion by Rob Barnett.

‘This is highly engaging music, with both concertos worthy of a place in the concert hall, and this disc will, I hope, help the cause. It is an outstanding achievement which more than meets Hyperion’s demandingly high standard.’ See review by Christopher Fifield.]

Until now Stenhammar has been on the fringes of my musical radar without really registering. Though I was aware of the existence of the Hyperion recording and my colleagues’ recommendations, I’d never got round to hearing it; it took the Naxos recording – one of founder-chairman Klaus Heymann’s recent personal recommendations – to make me listen.

I don’t like playing the direct comparison game too much, but on this occasion I listened to the first movement of the Naxos version of the First Concerto immediately after the Hyperion. Overall the new recording takes more than a minute less than the older one – not a huge difference in around 15-minutes, but the new version sounds much lighter than its predecessor. There’s a gain in lyricism and a loss of power, so it’s effectively swings and roundabouts. I could live with either, though my personal preference for the greater power of the Hyperion recording is supported by the fact that Mats Widlund and Gennady Rozhdestvensky on Chandos and Love Derwinger and Paavo Järvi on BIS or Brilliant – see below – both agree almost to the second with the Hyperion timing.

Heard separately, without attempting to make detailed comparisons, I’m more than happy with either. If you must have lossless, you will have to choose the Hyperion. Even if and when eclassical.com release the Naxos in lossless sound, their per-second price is likely to make the download more expensive than the CD for UK purchasers, for whom Naxos is a budget label.

There are also two BIS recordings, less logically coupling each of the concertos with other Stenhammar works. These are available to download in mp3 and lossless sound from eclassical.com (BIS-CD-550 – here and BIS-CD-476 – here. There is also a Chandos recording of the First Concerto, with the fragmentary Third Symphony, available in mp3 and lossless downloads from theclassicalshop.net (CHAN9074 – here).

Reissue of the Month

Engelbert HUMPERDINCK (1853-1921)

Hänsel und Gretel
Elisabeth Grümmer (mezzo) – Hansel; Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (soprano) – Gretel; Else Schürhoff (mezzo) – The Witch; Maria von Ilosvay (mezzo) – Mother; Josef Metternich (baritone) – Father; Anny Felbermayer (soprano) – Sandman, Dew Fairy; Loughton High School for Girls Choir; Bancroft School Choir
Philharmonia Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan – rec. 1953. ADD/mono
EMI CLASSICS 5099964071657 [108:07] – from classicsonline.com (mp3) or stream from Naxos Music Library

[‘To describe Karajan’s Hänsel und Gretel as the benchmark recording is almost to state the obvious. Its quality, both in terms of the performance and the recording, more than justify that status, and its perennial place in the catalogue may well explain why so few competitors have appeared in the intervening almost sixty years.’ – see review by Gavin Dixon]

What can I say about this recording that hasn’t already been said, most recently by Gavin Dixon? Other versions come and go: the fairly recent Tate recording (also EMI) seems to have disappeared, though classicsonline.com offer the highlights on Encore. This is the classic Hänsel und Gretel and likely to remain in the catalogue in one form or another as long as classical music exists. What I especially like is the way that all concerned contrive to balance the Wagnerian elements with the underlying good humour of the music – listen to the opening of Act II, which at times sounds like the entry of Fasolt and Fafner in Rheingold but with an un-Wagnerian lightness of rhythm bubbling below the surface.

Make sure that you download the version to which I’ve given the link, at £8.99: there’s an earlier EMI Great Recordings alternative at almost twice the price.

There’s a most inexpensive alternative from Past Classics which can be downloaded from emusic.com for just £1.26 or less – here. The transfer isn’t made with the same care as the latest EMI version but I have to admit that it’s not bad: there’s even a degree less hiss, I presume as a result of a treble cut. Each act is complete on one track, too, from Past Classics, thus avoiding any glitches between tracks. It’s almost impossible to listen to the Naxos Music Library version of the EMI because of the gaps which the player inserts between tracks. It’s easier to burn the Past Classics version to an mp3 CD, too, for use in the car, or sync to your mp3 player – again, one act per track eliminates gaps.

The EMI sounds incredibly good for its age but the Past Classics is far more than tolerable. Neither comes with a libretto, but you shouldn’t have trouble finding one online. Why cannot download providers also offer the bonus CD with the libretto which is now fairly standard fare with EMI Classics operas?

Freebie of the Month

A Christmas celebration


Includes: Ding dong merrily on high; Kwmbayah; Joys seven; William JAMES An Australian Christmas; Santa Claus-Trophia (arr. Sandy SMITH); William MATHIAS Sir Christemas and A Christmas Fantasy (arr Gordon LANGFORD).
Huddersfield Choral Society; Sellers Engineering Band/Brian Kay, Philip McCann
Pdf booklet with texts included.
CHANDOS BRASS CHAN4530 [70:40] – from theclassicalshop.net (mp3 and lossless)

This was the recent free download from the Chandos Classicalshop Newsletter. Even if you missed it, the mp3 download costs a mere £4.80, with lossless only a little more at £4.99. You’ve probably already guessed from the list of participants that this is an excellent collection of its kind and the recording, from 1993, is good. Even the one item arranged by John Rutter – Bach’s Zion hears the watchmen’s voices from Cantata 140 – is guaranteed not to upset his detractors unduly. The arrangement of Away in a manger is rather twee, however. There’s one typo in the texts – Heiliger Nacht (twice!) should be Heilige Nacht – wrong grammatical gender. If you haven’t yet signed up for the Newsletter, why not do so now?

I’ve already mentioned Damian’s 78s in earlier Roundups. It’s recently had something of a facelift: you may wish to check out recent additions – here.

Christmas Music Collections – familiar and unfamiliar


LIBERA: The Christmas Album

Joy to the World
Still, still, still
Carol of the Bells
Veni, Veni Emmanuel
Once in Royal David’s City
O Holy Night
White Christmas
Corpus Christi Carol
In Dulci Jubilo
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
Sing the Story
Coventry Carol
The First Nowell
Jubilate DeoWhile Shepherds watched their Flocks
Lullabye (Goodnight my angel)
Libera/Robert Prizeman
EMI CLASSICS 0886352 [57:21]

This is being touted as the thing this Christmas. It’s very well done and I’m sure that it will sell like hot cakes, but 57 minutes of angelic voices singing director Robert Prizeman’s Karl Jenkins-like arrangements was more than enough for me. It’s available from streaming from the Naxos Music Library, but not yet as a 320 kb/s download from their sister site, classicsonline.com. Amazon.co.uk have it in (I assume) 256kb/s mp3 here and hmvdigital.com in 320kb/s here.

Carols From King’s
On Christmas Night, ‘Sussex Carol’ (arr. D. WILLCOCKS) [1:56] And All In the Morning [2:17]
Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day (arr. D. WILLCOCKS) [1:53]
Weihnachtslieder, Op.8/3. Die Könige (Sung in English) (arr. I. ATKINS) [2:43]
The Cherry-Tree Carol (arr. D. WILLCOCKS) [1:48]
All My Heart this Night Rejoices [2:02]
Silent Night (arr. D. WILLCOCKS) [3:05]
Hail! Blessed Virgin Mary [2:15]
It Came upon the Midnight Clear (arr. D. WILLCOCKS) [3:32]
Ding Dong! Merrily On High [2:21]
I Saw a Maiden [3:05]
In the Bleak Mid-Winter [4:34]
Mary Walked Through a Wood of Thorn [1:38]
The Lord at First did Adam Make (arr. D. WILLCOCKS) [3:14]
A Child is Born in Bethlehem [2:31]
A Babe Is Born I Wys [2:23]
Psallite unigenito [1:01]
While Shepherds Watched their Flocks by Night (arr. D. WILLCOCKS) [2:51]
Nowell! Nowell! Nowell! [1:50]
The Holly and the Ivy [3:49]
Angelus ad virginem [1:23]
Angelus ad virginem (arr. E. POSTON) [2:38]
I Sing of a Maiden [2:43]
Watt’s Cradle Song [2:55]
Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day [2:05]
Sing a Song of Joy [1:49]
Jesus Christ the Apple Tree [2:31]
Most Glorious Lord of Life [2:29]
That Lord that lay in asse Stall [1:33]
Where Riches is everlastingly [2:51]
Stephen Varcoe (baritone); Choir of King’s College, Cambridge/Sir David Willcocks
EMI CLASSICS FOR PLEASURE 0724358562156 [73:45] – from classicsonline.com (mp3)

If you don’t have this self-recommending collection, or something like it, this is your essential purchase – a generous and comprehensive mix of the familiar and less familiar available for the budget price of £3.99. David Willcocks’ reign at King’s may have been well in the past but he left his successors such a firm base on which to build that his predecessor, Boris Ord, is now almost forgotten, though his time, too, was very distinguished, as witness the Beulah Extra reissue of his recording of Orlando Gibbons’ This is the Record of John and other anthems (1BX20 – see July 2010 Roundup). The recordings still sound fresh.

Carols from Oxford
Come All You Worthy Gentlemen [1:24]
Nova, Nova, Ave fit ex Eva [1:20]
Goday My Lord Syre Cristemasse [1:47]
Peter Maxwell DAVIES Ave Maria: Hail Blessed Flower [1:39]
Anthony MILNER Out of your sleep arise and wake [2:00]
Coventry Carol: Lully, Lulla, Thou Little Tiny Child (version 2) [3:16]
Thomas RAVENSCROFT Melismata 1611: Remember, O Thou Man [2:59]
William BYRD Lullaby, my sweet little baby [4:33]; This day Christ was born [2:53]
As Jacob with travel was weary one day, ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ [2:21]
The First Nowell [4:34]
Henry Thomas SMART Why, most highest? (Jesus in the Manger) [2:37]
Joseph BARNBY The virgin stills the crying [2:17]
Moon Shines Bright [2:04]
I Saw Three Ships [1:57]
What Child is this? (Greensleeves) [2:05]
See Amid the Winter’s Snow [4:49]
John Bacchus DYKES Sleep, Holy Babe [3:45]
Good Christian men, rejoice [1:45]
Good King Wenceslas [2:39]
A Babe is born [2:16]
Arthur SULLIVAN All this night [2:14]
Wassail Song, ‘Here We Come A-Wassailing’ [2:18]
John Henry HOPKINS We Three Kings of Orient are [3:40]
Benjamin BRITTEN Friday Afternoons, Op.7/5: A New Year Carol [2:13]
Patrick HADLEY I Sing of a Maiden [2:36]
Gustav HOLST Lullay My Liking, Op. 34/2, H. 129 [3:04]; Of one that is so fair, Op. 34/3, H. 130 [1:34]; This have I done for my true love, Op. 34/1, H. 128 [4:47]
Choir of Magdalen College, Oxford/John Harper
MUSICAL CONCEPTS MCS-ED-9085 [77:26] – from classicsonline.com (mp3) or stream from Naxos Music Library

This Oxford offering costs £1 more than its Cambridge rival – isn’t that as it should be, with the older seat of learning commanding a higher price? Actually, setting personal prejudice apart – and I have included far more Cambridge-sourced material in this selection – this varied and attractive selection is well worth £4.99 of anyone’s money. Apart from a noticeable background rumble (from passing traffic?) the recording is fine.

Also at £4.99, with Bill Ives conducting the Magdalen College Choir on The Gift of Music (CCLCDG1099 [67:04] – from classicsonline.com in mp3) there’s a recording of Nine Lessons and Carols, an attractive and inexpensive alternative to the King’s version.

Two albums from the many Christmas offerings on the Gothic label. Christmas with the Westminster Choir with members of the Concerto Soloists of Philadelphia, conducted by Joseph Flummerfelt from 1991 (G-49047 [55:41] from classicsonline.com (mp3) or stream from Naxos Music Library) is pretty well what you’d expect from a concert with an able group of singers and accompanists performing slightly, but not offensively, souped-up arrangements. The cowboy carol I wonder as I wander sounds too refined but O come Emmanuel with accompaniment is the only really irksome item in an enjoyable collection which is suitable for listening to while enjoying the mince pies and mulled wine. The recording is good. This album comes complete with the booklet of texts.

Christmas at America’s First Cathedral features Baltimore Choral Arts conducted by Tom Hall at Baltimore’s Basilica (Gothic G-49277 [58:10] – from classicsonline.com (mp3) or stream from Naxos Music Library). This offers a varied and unhackneyed programme, opening with an excerpt from Mendelssohn’s Paulus, centring on Rejoice O Judah from Judas Maccabæus, and concluding with the Halleluiah Chorus from Messiah, all delivered in rousing fashion, and including six attractive première recordings. Professional quality performances in a good recording. I hadn’t realised that this (RC) Metropolitan Cathedral predates the (Episcopal) National Cathedral in Washington by a considerable margin. This time there are no texts, or even a shot of the back cover, but the list of works and brief notes are available from the Gothic web page here.

Joy to the World
Rise up, shepherd, and follow [2:40]
Gabriel’s message [2:43]
Noël nouvelet [2:25]
What child is this? [3:17]
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY The crown of roses [3:06]
Arr. Johann Sebastian BACH O little one sweet [2:17]
Lullay my liking [4:25]
Stille Nacht [3:22]
The quiet heart [2:29]
John RUTTER There is a flower [3:43]
Joy to the world [2:32]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS Sérénade d’hiver [5:17]
The twelve days of Christmas [9:02]
Gaudete [1:37]
God rest you merry gentlemen [2:57]
The little drummer boy [2:45]
James Lord PIERPONT Jingle bells [1:30]
Deck the hall with boughs of holly [2:29]
Pdf booklet with texts included
The King’s Singers – rec. live, December 2010. DDD.
SIGNUM SIGCD268 [58:38] – from classicsonline.com (mp3) or stream from Naxos Music Library

Fans of the King’s Singers’ close harmony cannot go wrong with their first Christmas album since the release of SIGCD502 in 2003, recorded last December at Cadogan Hall, London. This hour-long selection from their concert is about the right length for me. The King’s Singers are rather like a box of expensive Belgian chocolates – very satisfying in small doses but a bit cloying after a while. John Julius Norwich’s additions to Twelve Days of Christmas are amusing once, perhaps even twice, but, unlike the great Hoffnung or Bob Newhart, they don’t bear repetition. The mp3 recording is good; as yet eclassical.com, who offer Signum in lossless as well as mp3, but you may find that it appears there before Christmas.

There are two of his compositions/arrangements on Joy to the World, but for fans of John Rutter – yes, I know you either love his music or you hate it – I list four of his recordings with the Cambridge Singers on the Collegium label. Inevitably there’s some overlap – In dulci jubilo, for example, in Christmas Night and The Cambridge Singers Christmas Album – but much less than you may imagine. I tried some in lossless sound from eclassical.com and some in (good) mp3 from classicsonline.com: both sound fine.

A Christmas Festival combines the Cambridge Singers with Elin Manahan Thomas, Clara Sanabras (sopranos), Melanie Marshall (mezzo), the Farnham Youth Choir and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, recorded in the Cadogan Hall, London, in 2008, on COLCD133 [71:45]. Most of the music is arranged or orchestrated in lush fashion by Rutter and includes pretty standard fare from O come, all ye faithful on track 1 to Have yourself a merry little Christmas on the final track, no.20. Eclassical.com offer mp3 and lossless for $12.92 – here – but classicsonline.com (£7.99, mp3 only - here) include the booklet with the deal. The booklet can also be accessed via Naxos Music Library.

The Cambridge Singers Christmas Album (CSCD512 [75:33] – rec. 1989, 1993 and 2003) contains a mixture, with some rather less familiar items, mostly sung a cappella, so those who dislike Rutter’s orchestrations need have no qualms; even the orchestral items are not in Rutter’s own arrangements. The City of London Sinfonia accompany Quel est cet odeur? Berlioz’s Shepherds’ Farewell, Handel’s Unto us a Child is born and a fine version of the Vaughan WilliamsFantasia on Christmas Carols, a work which I’ve long loved, which closes the programme. From classicsonline.com (mp3 – here – for £7.99) or eclassical.com (mp3 and lossless – here – for $13.60). There’s no booklet with either download or from the Naxos Music Library, but you can obtain it free from Collegium – here – who also offer mp3 or lossless downloads of their own recordings.

The best current recording of the VW Fantasia, however, is to be found on a Hyperion CD or download which I reviewed in the October 2010 Roundup, one of the recordings selected for their 30th-anniversary edition (CDA30025) or four disc RVW set (CDS44321/4). Thomas Allen is the superb soloist, slightly preferable to Stephen Varcoe on Collegium, (very) well though the latter sings.

The John Rutter Christmas Album (Collegium CSCD510 [75:50] – from eclassical.com in mp3 or lossless or stream from Naxos Music Library) offers a fairly traditional selection. Rutter haters should stay well clear – all the tracks contain his own compositions or arrangements: in fact Collegium describe it as the definitive collection of these. No booklet is provided but you’ll find it as a pdf download from the Collegium website – here.

Christmas Night – Carols of the Nativity (Collegium COLCD106 [62:06]) includes four of Rutter’s own arrangements but most of the carols are sung ‘straight’. 21 tracks, from in dulci jubilo to Rutter’s own Nativity Carol, download from eclassical.com (mp3 and lossless) or stream from Naxos Music Library. Neither of these provides the booklet but, again, the Collegium website does – here.

Nova! Nova! Christmas Carols from Europe (14th to 18th Centuries) offers a mixture of a few familiar items with much less well-known fare. The performers are The Playfords who, as their name suggests, adopt a lively approach to the music: several of the items from the Playford’s original Dancing Master collection are included on track 14, yet there is also a reflective calmness about much of the music. The (very) slow opening of the 15th-century carol on track 4 is very much the exception, but I found the arrangement strangely effective. The vocal soloist copes well with a variety of languages.

Overall, this is an enterprising release and a delight; I do wish, however, that we could have a moratorium on Riu, riu, chiu (track 3), almost mandatory for any Christmas recording now. (Coviello COV21012 [60:51] – from eclassical.com (mp3 and lossless) or stream from Naxos Music Library.) Unfortunately, there are no texts from either source.

You won’t find Riu, riu, chiu on Christmas Folk Music: An English Christmas Cheer in Songs and Carols (Ian Giles, baritone and drum; Lewin Giles, vocal and instrumental and the Spiers and Boden Duo, The Gift of Music CCLCDG1157 – from classicsonline.com for £4.99) but you will find some festive standards performed with a lively swing. I must point out that my better half walked in while I was listening and thought it horrible. Check out other Christmas offerings on this label, too, all available for £4.99. The inclusion of Stille Nacht rather stretches the concept of traditional English music but, heck, Christmas is coming.

At least one of the items on Snowflakes – a classical Christmas (BIS-CD-1885 [64:53] – from eclassical.com, 16 & 24-bit lossless and mp3, or stream from Naxos Music Library) seems to fall very dubiously under the ‘classical’ umbrella: a gloopy version of ‘When you wish upon a star’ from Pinocchio? Otherwise, as Rob Barnett writes – see his review for full listing – ‘Everything here has a toffee apple sweetness. The chewy melted sugar crackles and crazes to match the fireside cheer and smiling family values.’ I have to admit that, despite the inclusion of some unusual items, listening once via the Naxos Library didn’t tempt me to download this one.

A Steinway Christmas tells you exactly what you get on Steinway 30005 – 21 Christmas standards played on a Steinway piano. Though it’s a model of its kind, it comes with all the limitations that the solo piano implies: it’s impossible for the instrument to reproduce the ‘neigh’ at the end of Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride (track 1) for example. I was surprised even to discover that the Steinway label existed. I can’t raise a great deal of enthusiasm for this though some of the arrangements are very interesting, such as that of Ding dong merrily which interweaves Bach’s Jesu joy of man’s desiring (track 3) and it might well serve as a template for those who are expected to exercise their pianistic skills at Christmas. The album runs for 62:29 and comes in mp3 or lossless flac from eclassical.com.

Johann KUHNAU (1660-1722)

Ihr Himmel jubilirt von oben [13:21]
Weicht ihr Sorgen aus dem Hertzen [14:00]
Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern [13:46]
Gott, sei mir gnädig nach deiner Güte [12:21]
Tristis est anima mea [5:01]
O heilige Zeit [16:11]
Deborah York, Marianne Hellgren, Lisa Beckley, Susan Hamilton (soprano)
James Bowman, Robin Blaze (counter-tenor)
Charles Daniels, James Gilchrist (tenor)
Peter Harvey, Colin Campbell (bass)
The King’s Consort/Robert King – rec. 1998. DDD.
Pdf booklet with texts and translations included
HYPERION CDH55394 [74:43] – from hyperion-records.co.uk (mp3 and lossless)

Due for reissue on CD at the end of January 2012, this fascinating album is available to download now. Though most of the music is suitable for Passiontide and Easter, Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern uses a chorale which Bach and others also employed – in Bach’s case in Cantata No.1 for the Annunciation, but here as part of a text for the Nativity. Everything here is a cut above the rather dull keyboard Biblical Sonatas, the only other Kuhnau work which I had known before – I suspect that’s at least in part due to the powerful advocacy of the King’s Consort. With the usual excellent Hyperion booklet of notes and texts and good recording, don’t wait till late January to download this, the latest reissue in the Contemporaries of Bach series.

Christmas at the Court of Dresden
Josef SEGER (1716-1782)

Prelude for organ in c minor [1:51]
Anon/Johann Georg SCHÜRER (c1720 – 1786)
Invitatorium: Christus natus est and Psalm 94 (95) (Venite) [11:58]
Hymnus: Jesu redemptor omnium [00:57]
Johann David HEINICHEN (1683-1729)
Pastorale per la Notte di Natale in A (S242) [3:49]
Te Deum [14:27]
Giovanni Alberti RISTORI (1692-1753)
Messa per il Santissimo Natale and Motetto pastorale (O admirabile commercium) [44:35]
Christine Wolff (soprano); Britta Schwarz (contralto); Martin Petzold (tenor)
Körnischer Sing-Verein Dresden, Dresdner Instrumental-Concert/Peter Kopp – rec.2004. DDD
CARUS 83.169 [77:36] – from classicsonline.com (mp3) or stream from Naxos Music Library

[‘Recordings like this are very useful to put the music in its proper context… I am happy to say that the performance never disappoints.’ – see review by Johan van Veen]

Heinichen and Gebel (below) were two contemporaries of Bach whose music has been almost totally eclipsed by his until recently. It’s thanks to Carus and CPO that we are gradually rediscovering them. Both this and the Gebel recording bring us music composed for and performed at the Court of Dresden in the mid-18th century. Performances and recordings are excellent, even in mp3, though there is no booklet of texts.

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)

Into every Christmas at least a little Bach should percolate. In the previous Roundup - here - I included four releases from the BIS Suzuki series of the cantatas, each containing at least one work for the Christmas and New Year season. While approving of that recommendation, my colleague John Quinn has chided me in the nicest possible way for not also reminding you of the virtues of John Eliot Gardiner’s series, recorded on his world pilgrimage in 2000 and now complete on his own SDG label.

In previous years I have highlighted some of these SDG recordings, together with some of the series which DG Archiv released in mixed programmes – cantatas from the 2000 series with some earlier Gardiner recordings – before giving up the project, but, since I find it impossible to recommend either Suzuki or Gardiner at the expense of the other, I gladly take the opportunity to promote SDG Volumes 14 to 18 which contain cantatas for the season:

– Volume 14: Cantatas 40, 91, 110 and 121 – SDG113 – from classicsonline.com (mp3). See review.
– Volume 15: Cantatas 57, 64, 133 and 151 – SDG127 – from classicsonline.com (mp3). Recording of the Month – see review.
– Volume 16: Cantatas 28, 122, 152, 190 and 225 – SDG137 – from classicsonline.com (mp3). See review and December 2010 Roundup.
– Volume 17: Cantatas 16, 41, 58, 143, 153 and 171 – SDG150 – from classicsonline.com (mp3). See review.
– Volume 18: Cantatas 32, 63, 65, 123, 124, 154 and 191 – SDG174 – from classicsonline.com (mp3). Recording of the Month – see review.
– Cantatas 140 (last Sunday in Advent) and 147 – DGG Archiv 463 5872 (rec.1990). See Christmas 2010 Roundup.
– Cantatas 63, 64, 121 and 134 – DG Archiv 463 5892 (rec.1998). See Christmas 2009 Roundup.

SDG150 and 174 are 2-CD sets, the rest are single CDs. All can also be streamed from the Naxos Music Library and all come complete with the conductor’s notes but no texts – these can be easily found on the web. JQ’s reviews – follow the links above – say it all except that the mp3 transfers are good.

At this point I’m going to be perverse and focus on yet a pair of non-Christmas recordings from the series:

Volume 21: Cantatas for Quinquagesima Sunday
Jesus nahm zu sich die Zwölfe, BWV22
Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn, BWV23
Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’ Mensch und Gott, BWV127
Sehet! Wir gehn hinauf gen Jerusalem, BWV159
Ruth Holten (soprano); Claudia Schubert (alto); James Oxley (tenor); Peter Harvey (bass); The choirs of Clare College and Trinity College, Cambridge; The Monteverdi Choir; English Baroque Soloists/Sir John Eliot Gardiner.
rec. King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, 5 March 2000. DDD.
Cantatas for the Annunciation/Palm Sunday/Oculi
Himmelskönig, sei willkommen, BWV182
Widerstehe doch die Sünde, BWV54
Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, BWV1
Malin Hartelius (soprano); Nathalie Stutzmann (alto); James Gilchrist (tenor); Peter Harvey (bass); The Monteverdi Choir; English Baroque Soloists/Sir John Eliot Gardiner.
rec. Walpole St. Peter, Norfolk, 26 March 2000. DDD.
Pdf booklet included but no texts.
SOLI DEO GLORIA SDG118 [74:50 + 60:14] – from classicsonline.com (mp3) or stream from Naxos Music Library

[‘Any Bach lover who has yet to experience the Cantata Pilgrimage should hasten to rectify the omission and either of these volumes [19 and 21] would make an excellent starting point. This is turning out to be an important and distinguished series and I recommend these latest issues very strongly.’ See review by John Quinn.]

I have two excuses for choosing this recording: first, that Cantata No.1, for the Annunciation, features a text equally appropriate for Christmas – see the Kuhnau recording above – and secondly that there are some essential works here, especially Cantatas 54 and 159. I was going to write that being back in King’s College chapel, where his Monteverdi Choir was born, brought out the best in John Eliot Gardiner, but how can there be a best in a series which is beyond comparison? The presence of the members of two other distinguished Cambridge college choirs must have added spice to the occasion, however, as well as reminding us that both our ancient universities contain choirs to rival King’s. No texts, but the usual enlightening notes from JEG’s journal make ample amends when there are plenty of texts and translations of the cantatas online.

Georg GEBEL the Younger (1709-1753) Christmas Cantatas Volume I
Verfolge mich, O Welt (St Stephen’s Day, December 26, 1747/8) [30:04]
Gott Lob! Mein Jesus macht mich rein (Sunday after Christmas, 1747/8) [40:57]
Veronika Winter (soprano); Britta Schwarz (alto); Andreas Post (tenor); Matthias Vieweg (bass)
Les Amis de Philippe/Ludger Rémy – rec. October 2009. DDD.
CPO 777 610-2 [71:25] – from classicsonline.com (mp3) or stream from Naxos Music Library

Another neglected contemporary of JS Bach is brought to life in this recording of two lengthy Christmas-tide cantatas for the Dresden Court by Georg Gebel Junior. Of course he’s no JSB, but this recording serves to demonstrate what a wealth of beautiful music we miss if we concentrate solely on Bach and Handel. Graupner, for example, who was preferred by the Leipzig Council even to JSB, Heinichen (see above) and Homilius both of whose causes Carus have taken up effectively recently.

There’s more Christmas-tide music from Gebel on CPO 999 993-2 [69:17] – from classicsonline.com (mp3): an Oratorio for Christmas Eve [36:22] and one for the New Year [32:55] which Johan van Veen recommended with slight reservations – see review. I take heart, too, from the ‘Volume I’ affixed to the title of the new recording, though Volume II is not yet available for download. Don’t even dream of downloading Volume I from emusic.com for a ridiculous £11.34 when it comes for £7.99 from classicsonline.com.

CHRISTMAS MUSIC
Carl BÖDDECKER (1607-1683)
Natus est Jesus [4:55]
Alessandro SCARLATTI (1660-1725) Non sò qual più m’ingombra [14:35]
Johann PACHELBEL (1653-1706) Canon and Gigue [5:10]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV61 – Öffne dich mein ganzes Herz [3:20]
Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D, BWV1068 – Air [4:10]
Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, BWV147a – Bereite dir, Jesu, noch itzo die Bahn [4:11]
Alessandro SCARLATTI O di Betlemme, altera povera venturosa [16:38]
Arcangelo CORELLI (1653-1713)
Concerto grosso in g minor, Op. 6/8, ‘Fatto per la notte di natale’ [13:05]
Emma Kirkby (soprano); London Baroque/Charles Medlam (cello)
Pdf booklet with texts and translations included
BIS CD-1135 [66:49] – from eclassical.com (mp3 and lossless)

[‘No admirer of either baroque music or Emma Kirkby will want to miss this impeccably programmed disc … Many, many delights await you.’ – see 5/5-star review by Colin Clarke.]

My only reservation in making this my first choice of this month’s Christmas recordings is that we could well have forgone the orchestral items, of which there are plenty of recommendable versions to suit all tastes, in favour of more from Ms Kirkby. The Corelli is all well and good – the slow movement evoking the Christmas shepherds – but why include Pachelbel’s ubiquitous greatest hit? Setting all that aside, the superb fresh-voiced singing, excellent accompaniment and recording and the inclusion of the booklet with the texts amply atones. If you’re sated with the usual stuff, Hark, the herald angels sing/Emma Kirkby’s just the thing. (With apologies to the young Thomas Beecham who, as Neville Cardus reports in A Mingled Chime, adapted the carol in similar fashion to advertise his family’s famous pills.)

Finally, from my best Christmas recommendation to my turkey: this one’s so bad in places that it’s actually fascinating. That Christmas Feeling (Naxos Nostalgia 8.120564 [63:14] – from classicsonline.com in mp3 or stream from Naxos Music Library) contains 21 seasonal hits from 1932 to 1950, performed by the likes of Bing Crosby at his dreamy best or worst according to taste, sometimes in partnership with one or more of the Andrews Sisters, Gene Autry (the Singing Cowboy), Judy Garland, Arty Shaw and Gracie Fields in such well-known favourites as Rudolf the red-nosed Reindeer. It’s all good fun apart from I Yust go Nuts at Christmas and, worst of all All I want for Christmas is my two Front Teeth, sung by an annoying infant. Whatever you think of the other tracks, you’ll hate those two so much that you’ll love them. The recordings are variable, with little attempt to clean up the crackle. £4.99 in the UK but not available in the US – perhaps our American readers should be grateful.

***

Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
String Quartet No.61 in d minor, Op.76/2, Hob.III/76 (Fifths)
String Quartet No.62 in C, Op.76/3, Hob.III/77 (Emperor)
String Quartet No.63 in B flat, Op.76/4, Hob.III/78 (Sunrise)
Gewandhaus Quartett – rec.2004. DDD.
NEW CLASSICAL ADVENTURE NCA60148-210 [70:26] – from classicsonline.com (mp3) or NCA62937-210 – also from classicsonline.com or stream with either catalogue number from Naxos Music Library

The existence of two versions of this recording, with different catalogue numbers, seems to arise from the fact that New Classical Adventure – a label new to me, though the Naxos Music Library and classicsonline.com list several of their recordings – have released the parent disc in both SACD and CD formats. On the showing of this recording, it would seem that their catalogue is worth investigating.

There’s a rival Naxos coupling of these three works from the Kodály Quartet – an alternative, made at different sessions, to their complete Op.76 performances which are spread over two CDs. That’s been my version of choice since I bought it in the early days of Naxos when their CDs cost £3.99 from Woolworths, of blessed memory and I’d still recommend the classicsonline.com download of that at £4.99. I do think, however, that the Gewandhaus performances have a slight edge on it, and they too come at £4.99 in good mp3 sound. These three named quartets go well together, but those requiring the complete Op.76 will need to have the Kodály Quartet set or, a little more expensively, the Quatuor Mosaïques in period instrument performances on Naïve, also from classicsonline.com – here.

Jakub Jan RYBA (1765-1815)
Czech Christmas Mass – Hej, mistre [38:39]
My lovely Nightingale * [4:14]
Jaroslava Vymazalova (soprano); Marie Mrazova (contralto); Benno Blachut (tenor); Zdenek Kroupa (bass)
Helena Tattermuschova (soprano) *; Jaroslav Josifko (flute) *
Milan Slechta (organ)
Jaroslav Vodrazka (organ) *
Czech Philharmonic Chorus
Prague Symphony Orchestra/Vaclav Smetacek – rec. 1965. ADD
SUPRAPHON SU36582 [42:59] – from emusic.com (mp3)

This is the same recording that Jonathan Woolf reviewed in 2003, though it’s had a change of cover. The short value is covered by emusic.com’s policy of charging by the track – £4.20 or less for the album in this case. Ryba’s Christmas Mass, like the similar work by Pascha, is fun music, with vernacular texts replacing the sections of the Latin Mass. Performance-wise honours are about even between this and the Naxos recording which I reviewed in the Christmas 2009 Roundup. Though the latter is a digital recording, the older Supraphon still sounds well, even though emusic.com offer it at a bit-rate of only around 200 kb/s. With extra music for less than £1 more from classicsonline.com, you may well think the Naxos the better bargain – try it out at the Naxos Music Library. The new recording on Arco Diva UP0142-2 reviewed by Gary Higginson – here – has not yet appeared as a download, but the CD can be purchased for £12, including p&p, direct from Musicweb International – here.

Edmund Pascha’s even more colourful work in the same vein seems not to be available complete, but the 12-minute Gloria from it is available on The Christmas Album (Taverner Consort and Players/Andrew Parrott). Czech and Slovak versions sound more appropriately rough and ready; though this will do nicely faute de mieux,. if you see a copy of Miroslav Venhoda’s recording of this work with the Prague Madrigal Singers on Campion RRCD1305 snap it up. There’s an attractive version of M A Charpentier’s In nativitatem canticum, H414 on the same album: Virgin Classics 0724354515552 [62:58] – from classicsonline.com (mp3) or stream from Naxos Music Library.

Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
The Nutcracker (complete ballet), Op.71 (1892) [93:07]
Russian National Orchestra/Mikhail Pletnev
ONDINE ODE1180-2D [49:01 + 44:16] – from classicsonline.com (mp3) or eclassical.com (mp3 and lossless)

Another Christmas, another Nutcracker, so how does this compare with last year’s offering from Simon Rattle or the budget-price version by André Previn? For starters, both Rattle and Pletnev take two whole CDs with no coupling and so represent poor value for money by comparison with Previn, unless you settle for the slightly abridged single-CD version of the Rattle. Previn comes in two guises on EMI, coupled with La Sylphide, available on 5099996769454 from classicsonline.com for £7.99 – here – or with highlights from Prokofiev’s Cinderella on 0094639323357 from classicsonline.com for £6.99 – here. When I recommended the latter recently (September 2011/2 Roundup), the La Sylphide coupling was too expensive but classicsonline.com have been putting their EMI budget twofers out at more reasonable prices recently, so either is now very good value.

My first impression of the new recording, that Pletnev adopts noticeably slow tempi, is borne out by comparing timings of most individual sections with Rattle and Previn. Sometimes the difference is quite noticeable, as in the Scene and Grandfather’s Dance (track 6) which almost comes to a halt at times. We septuagenarians may be a bit slow on our pins – Previn’s and Rattle’s grandfathers are certainly no sprinters – but this is a very slow grandfather indeed. Tempo di Grossvater in the score may be ambiguous but most conductors apart from Pletnev adopt a (significantly) faster tempo. Under Pletnev the whole of Act I No.5 takes 7:56 against 6:14 from Rattle, who also enlivens the section with some extra whizz-bangs, 6:00 from Bonynge (see below), 5:42 from Previn and 5:35 from Ansermet (see below). Even the next slowest version that I can find of this section, an anonymous version on YouTube – here – takes 6:35.

Pletnev’s Tchaikovsky regularly divides opinion: neither Brian Reinhart – see review – nor I had much time for his recent recording of the Fifth Symphony on PentaTone, yet others have raved about it, so I’m prepared to accept that many will enjoy his Nutcracker. For all that I enjoyed perhaps half of this performance – the exciting Battle, which follows the caricature Grandfather Dance, for example, the ensuing Transformation Scene and most of the Act II Dances – and though the recording is good, you’ll need to include me out, to quote Sam Goldwyn. Stay with Rattle or Previn according to taste and size of purse or wallet. Incidentally, Dutch speakers will find a narrated version of Rattle’s recording, de Notenkraker at the Naxos Music Library, where you can also compare all three of the Nutcrackers that I’ve been considering.

Should neither Previn nor Rattle appeal, passionato.com have the set from Richard Bonynge (Decca 444 8272 – see November 2010 Roundup). Still well worth considering – it remains my favourite in many ways – the Ansermet recording has been reissued on Decca Eloquence 480 0557 for around £12 – not available to download.

Nikolay Andreyevich RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)

Suite from The Snow Maiden (1880-81) [12:34]
Sadko – Musical picture, Op.5 (1869, rev. 1892 ) [10:53]
Suite from Mlada (1889-90) [18:24]
Suite from Le Coq d’Or (1907) [28:13]
Seattle Symphony/Gerard Schwarz – rec. 2011. DDD.
Pdf booklet included.
NAXOS 8.572787 [70:04] – from classicsonline.com (mp3) or stream from Naxos Music Library

Seattle, Schwarz and Naxos are becoming an unassailable combination. First a version of Sheherazade to be reckoned with (Bargain of the Month – see review, March 2011/1 Roundup and review), followed by Capriccio espagnol, May Night, etc. (Bargain of the Month – see review, September 2011/2 Roundup and review) and the two-and-a-half Borodin symphonies (Bargain of the Month – see review and August 2011/2 Roundup), now Schwarz, the Seattle Symphony and Naxos combine again to give us a version of four Rimsky suites which once more challenges existing recommendations.

Maybe I was not quite enthusiastic enough about the Sheherazade – (very) much as I like it, I still think Beecham and Reiner unassailable – but I’d back the new recording even against strong competition. For quality and price in these suites, that competition largely boils down to the budget 2-CD set from Järvi on Chandos, also containing the magical Christmas Eve, which I recommended in the December 2008 Roundup. As a 2-for-1 offer that Chandos set works out at the same price as two Naxos CDs in mp3 format from theclassicalshop.net, with the lossless version a little more expensive.

The Naxos recording will doubtless appear in lossless sound from eclassical.com in due course, as the recording of Capriccio espagnol already has but their price-per-second policy, which normally makes their downloads the most economical on the market, breaks down for bargain labels: $12:07 is way too expensive for a budget-price recording which costs less than £6 on CD in the UK, though it may be attractive to readers in the USA where I’m aware that Naxos CDs cost a good deal more.

Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918) Orchestral Works Volume 7
Fantaisie for Piano and Orchestra (revised version, pub.1968) [24:21]
Première Rapsodie for Orchestra with Principal Clarinet [7:36]
Rapsodie for Saxophone and Orchestra (orch. J. ROGER-DUCASSE) [10:00]
Deux Danses for Harp and Strings (Danse sacrée et danse profane) [9:13]
Jean-Yves Thibaudet (piano); Paul Meyer (clarinet); Alexandre Doisy (saxophone); Emmanuel Ceysson (harp)
Orchestre National de Lyon/Jun Märkl – rec. September and October 2010 and March 2011. DDD
Pdf booklet included.
NAXOS 8.572675 [51:27] – from classicsonline.com (mp3) or stream from Naxos Music Library

[See A Man of the World – Jeremy Siepmann talks to Jun Märkl – here.]

This, the seventh volume in Naxos’s complete recordings of Debussy’s Orchestral Music, uniquely gathers together his concertante works on a single CD.* I was surprised to discover not only that no other single recording has this obvious combination but that there are so few versions of the Fantaisie in the current catalogue. Two of these couple the work with the Ravel Piano Concertos – Anne Queffélec on budget-price Warner Apex and Jean-Efflam Bavouzet on Chandos – and both offer strong competition to the new recording: the Chandos was my joint Download of the Month in the January 2011 Roundup. I still marginally prefer Bavouzet’s and Tortelier’s slightly more urgent performance, especially as that can be obtained in 16- and 24-bit lossless sound, but there’s not a great deal in it. In sum, the Fantaisie is an unjustly neglected work and the choice of version can safely be left to your preferred coupling – if you want the Ravel concertos, they are played on Chandos as well as any other version that I’ve heard.

If you’re looking for the other Debussy works, they, too, receive attractive performances and the recording is good. When classicsonline.com say that their bit-rate is 320 kb/s you can rely on it being so – which is not always the case even with some suppliers who claim the lower 256kb/s.

* There’s a recommendable budget 2-CD EMI set which includes them all plus Petite Suite, Children’s Corner and Khamma (3652402 – download from classicsonline.com (0094636524054) for £6.99.). Aldo Ciccolini is the free-wheeling soloist in the Fantaisie with Jean Martinon at the helm. It’s also available for streaming from the Naxos Music Library.

Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS
(1872-1958)
Folk Songs of the Four Seasons (1951) [41:41]
Prologue: to the Ploughboy
Spring: Early in the Spring (for three voices unaccompanied);
The Lark in the Morning (for two voices);
May Song – Full chorus with semi-chorus.
Summer: Summer is a-coming in and The Cuckoo – Full chorus;
The Sprig of Thyme – Full chorus;
The Sheep Shearing – (for two voices unaccompanied); The Green Meadow (unison – all voices)
Autumn: John Barleycorn (full chorus with semi-chorus);
The Unquiet Grave (for three voices unaccompanied); An Acre of Land (unison – all voices)
Winter: Children’s Christmas Song (in two-part harmony);
Wassail Song (unison with descant);
In Bethlehem City (for three voices unaccompanied);
God Bless the Master (unison with descant) (world première recording)
In Windsor Forest (1930) (world première of this arrangement for women’s voices by Guthrie Foot) [13:37]
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge; Dmitri Ensemble, Cambridge/Sir David Willcocks – rec. January 2009.
ALBION ALBCD010 [55:22] – from classicsonline.com (mp3) or stream from Naxos Music Library

[‘Of the five Albion discs issued to date the most ambitious and exciting is this latest.’ – see review by Rob Barnett.]

Albion’s latest release, of Vaughan Williams’ On Christmas Day (ALBCD013) seems not yet to have reached the download sites at the time of writing, but the Winter section of this ground-breaking earlier album of Music for the Four Seasons will do very well for the season. There are no texts but the download is very inexpensive at £4.99. Mandatory for all lovers of VW, who should have fun spotting all the tunes that he recycled in his other music.

Sergei RACHMANINOV
(1873-1943)
CD 1 [74:41]
Piano Concerto No. 1 in f sharp minor Op.1 [26:02]
Piano Concerto No. 4 in g minor Op.40 [24:35]
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini Op.43 [23:44]
CD 2 [70:54]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in c minor Op.18 [32:26]
Piano Concerto No. 3 in d minor Op.30 [38:23]
Stephen Hough (piano)
Dallas Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Litton – rec. live 2003 and 2004. DDD.
HYPERION CDA30014/2 [74:41 + 70:54] – CD only from hyperion-records.co.uk – not available as download

[‘A must have. A revelation. Get it’. Recording of the Month. See review by Kevin Sutton.
‘A truly superb set of Rachmaninov works for piano and orchestra.’ See review by Colin Clarke.]

[See also slightly less positive review by Christopher Howell and review of Nos. 2 and 3 by Stephen Francis Vasta.]

Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
CD 1 [54:57]
Piano Concerto No.1, Op.1 [24:18]
Piano Concerto No.2, Op.18 [30:29]
CD 2 [79:22]
Piano Concerto No.3, Op.30 [35:24]
Piano Concerto No.4, Op.40 [23:01]
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op.43 [20:37]
Earl Wild (piano)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Jascha Horenstein – rec. 1965. ADD.
Pdf booklet available.
CHANDOS CHAN7114 [54:57 + 79:22] – from theclassicalshop.net (mp3 and lossless)

[‘I confidently recommend this set which contains so many memorable and deeply moving and viscerally exciting moments.’ – see 5-star review of earlier Chandos release by Rob Barnett.]

Last time I looked at some of the available recordings of Rachmaninov Symphonies, so it’s logical to follow up with the Piano Concertos. The Vladimir Ashkenazy/André Previn versions of Nos. 2 and 3 have been my benchmarks for a long time now and they remain very competitive. They can be obtained on a Double Decca set of all four concertos from passionato.com in mp3 or lossless sound (444 8392 – here).

I couldn’t leave out the Hough/Litton version, which also includes the Paganini Rhapsody, on Hyperion, even though, for copyright reasons, it’s not available as a download. In compensation, the CDs were reissued as part of Hyperion’s 30th Birthday celebrations at upper mid price (£19.98 direct from Hyperion). If you just want the best known, Nos.2 and 3, they can be obtained on a single CD, CDA67649. The SACDs are no longer available.

Though these Hyperion recordings have met with almost universal adulation, if you look at the four Musicweb International reviews listed above, you’ll see that two proclaim the set an outright winner while the other two are more circumspect. For me these versions are winners, especially in the case of the ‘also-rans’, the First and Fourth Concertos, far preferable to Philippe Entremont and Eugene Ormandy (formerly on Sony Essential Classics SBK46541, with the Rhapsody) which has sat in my CD collection for too long. There’s not too much wrong with those performances but Hough and Litton’s rather sharper timings in the first two movements of No.4 are preferable – the slow movement is languorous enough at 6:22: Entremont and Ormandy stretch it a little too far, to 6:57 – and the Sony recording (1958 and 1963) is dated.

Hough’s Paganini Rhapsody is a little slow to get going, perhaps because it was recorded in the studio and lacks the live audience. I’d have liked a little more schmalz in variation XVIII but found the interpretation successful overall.

The tempi for No.2 are on the fast side, especially in the adagio sostenuto slow movement where Hough’s 11:02 compares with Ashkenazy’s 11:53 and Jenö Jandó’s 11:17 (Naxos 8.550117, with the Rhapsody, a recommendable budget-price version). Yet there’s no lack of emotion in this performance – I couldn’t wish the opening movement a second slower: there’s all the yearning here despite the fact that this performance takes over a minute less than Ashkenazy and Jandó and the same applies to the second movement. A free-wheeling, though sensitive finale rounds off as good a performance as any that I’ve heard, followed, like all the concerto recordings by well-deserved applause. For all the virtues of Jandó and Lehel, it’s off to the charity shop with their Naxos recording.

A fastish performance of Concerto No.3 which almost convinces me that it’s the equal of No.2 – not that I need too much persuading – concludes a fine pair of CDs. The recordings throughout are excellent – it’s just a shame that Hyperion have deleted their SACD versions. The notes, too, are excellent, with a short foreword by Stephen Hough himself.

Christopher Howell in his review – see above – expressed a preference for the cycle recorded in 2001 by Oleg Marshev, the Aarhus SO and James Loughran (Danacord DACOCD582-583) which can be downloaded, complete with booklet, from classicsonline.com in mp3. Unfortunately, they haven’t realised that this set is offered as three-for-two, though it’s clearly marked as such on the cover, so their price of £23.97 compares poorly with the discs, available in the UK for around £20. That Marshev runs to three CDs tells its own story concerning timings – noticeably slower than Hough, with the adagio sostenuto of No.2 taking 12:11, slower than any of the three versions which I’ve compared above. I listened to Marshev’s version of this concerto through the Naxos Music Library, expecting to find it heavy and ponderous by comparison. It’s certainly a big-boned interpretation; right from the start the listener is aware that this is going to be a powerful statement in a larger-than-life recording. That slow movement really is slow and I might well have found it painfully so if heard immediately after Hough, but it makes sense within the context of the whole performance. I wouldn’t rate this as my favourite version of the concerto but I can fully understand that others might, especially ardent fans of Brief Encounter.

So what is the ‘right’ tempo for the slow movement of the Second Concerto? Rachmaninov himself takes just 10:40 without sounding hurried in his rather cool 1929 recording with Stokowski – miraculously brought back to life on Naxos Historical 8.110601, despite some heavy surface swish. The closest you get to that on a modern recording comes from Earl Wild and Jascha Horenstein, who even undercut the master at 10:25. I don’t like playing the Building a Library game, which often over-emphasises differences in tempo and interpretation, but I did listen to Wilde in this movement immediately after Rachmaninov and was struck by the similarity of interpretation – the lightness of the soloists’ touch, as far as the huge differences in recording quality allow, and the way in which they and their respective conductors keep the music moving forward without understating its emotional content.

This recording from the 1960s has been round the block a time or two, with a brief appearance on the Chesky label, along with the other concertos, which earned 4/5-star ratings from Rob Barnett, before Chandos reissued the 2-CD set in various formats. For RB’s enthusiastic review of the original Chandos release, see above. The recording is superb for its age. If you can live with a slightly abbreviated version of the Third Concerto – Hough and Litton also restore a brief cut in the Fourth Concerto – this recording, originally made for Reader’s Digest, is well worth considering by all except those who insist on their Rachmaninov being dreamy.

If you’re looking for a compromise between extremes of tempo – not that it sounds like a compromise at all – Hough and Litton are your men.

The Chandos recording costs £16.50 on CD, direct from the company, and £11.99 as a lossless download. Don’t choose the alternative download (CHAN10078), which costs £15.99. The Hyperion 2-CD set costs a tad more at £19.98, again direct from the company. You’ll find both for less from some online dealers.

John FOULDS (1880-1939)

Keltic Overture op.28 (1930) [7:26]
Keltic Suite op.29 (1911) (The Clans; A Lament; The Call) [15:04]
Sicilian Aubade (1927) [5:48]
Isles of Greece op.48 no.2 (Impressions of time and place no.2) (1927) [4:26]
Holiday Sketches op.16 (1908) (Festival in Nuremberg; Romany from Bohemia; Evening in the Odenwald; Bells at Coblentz) [15:10]
An Arabian Night (1936-37) [6:04]
Suite Fantastique, Op.72 (from the music to a French Pierrot play) (1924) (Pierrette and Pierrot; Chanson Plaintive; The Wayside Cross; Carnival Procession) [14:12]
Katharine Wood (cello solo); Cynthia Fleming (violin solo); Roderick Elms (organ)
BBC Concert Orchestra/Ronald Corp – rec. March 2010. DDD
DUTTON EPOCH CDLX7252 [68:06] – from iTunes (mp3)

[‘From the opening horn-calls of Foulds’ Keltic Overture echoing across the sound-stage and his achingly lovely melody at the heart of the overture (beginning at 3:03), I was transfixed by this CD’ – see review by Ian Lace and review by Rob Barnett.]

Seeing this among Ian Lace’s choices for Recordings of the Year here – and knowing that iTunes had recently added some Dutton albums to their offerings, I decided to give it a try and was as thoroughly convinced as my two colleagues. I’m not a fan of iTunes for many reasons, partly because you have to alter the ‘open with’ property of the files if you wish to play, burn to CDR or sync to mp3 player using anything other than the iTunes jukebox. The music is delightful, performance and recording totally convincing and the mp3 transfer more than acceptable, though iTunes have yet to up their game from 256kb/s to the full 320kb/s.

Listeners really need notes to appreciate lesser-known music like this. I’ve followed up a colleague’s suggestion to Dutton that they might consider making their booklets available as pdf downloads from their own site, as several labels do, but neither of us has received any response to date.

Emusic.com have an inexpensive download of three of Foulds’ works, taken from a 1982 LP on the Forlane label: Saint Joan Suite, Op.82b, Pasquinade Symphonique, Op.98 and Mirage, Op.20, performed by the Luxemburg Radio Symphony Orchestra under Leopold Hager (classical.com music, £1.26 or less in mp3 from emusic.com: £6.99 from amazon.co.uk.) Decent performances and recordings make a good case for the music, though only Mirage approaches the quality of the music on Dutton.

For Foulds’ Dynamic Triptych, coupled with Vaughan Williams Piano Concerto (Lyrita SRCD.211) see review by Colin Clarke and January 2009 Roundup.

John RUTTER (b.1945) Music for Christmas
Shepherd’s Pipe Carol [2:52]
Nativity Carol [4:50]
There is a Flower [4:12]
Sans Day Carol [2:52]
What sweeter music? [4:15]
I wonder as I wander [3:15]
Jesus Child [3:07]
Wild Wood Carol [3:27]
The very best time of year [3:29]
Away in a manger [2:23]
Angel Tidings [1:37]
Christmas Lullaby [3:58]
Dormi Jesu [4:46]
Love came down at Christmas [2:22]
Star Carol [2:45]
Carol of the Children [3:12]
Mary’s Lullaby [3:08]
Silent night [3:31]
Angels’ Carol [3:12]
Candlelight Carol [3:53]
Second Amen [0:53]
Donkey Carol [3:25]
Polyphony
City Of London Sinfonia/Stephen Layton – rec. 2001. DDD.
Pdf booklet with texts included
HYPERION CDA67245 [71:24] – from hyperion-records.co.uk (mp3 and lossless)

We all have our blind spots – I’m not very impressed by the Libera Christmas Album and I’ve awarded Naxos’s Nostalgic Christmas offering a turkey – but I have to admit to a fondness for John Rutter, especially his Christmas music, though I know that it has a deleterious effect on many people. If you agree with me, this Hyperion recording makes a fine addition to the recordings on his own Collegium label (above). If anyone can equal Rutter’s Cambridge Singers at the Christmas game, it’s Polyphony with Stephen Layton, and the lossless download sounds fine.

Looking ahead

Neujahrskonzert – New Year’s Day Concert 2011

CD 1
Johann STRAUSS II (1825-1899) Reiter-Marsch Op.428 [3:09]
Donauweibchen, Op.427 [9:00]
Amazonen-Polka, Op.9 [2:49]
Debut-Quadrille, Op.2 [4:55]
Joseph LANNER (1801-1843) Die Schönbrunner, Walzer Op.200 [8:57]
Johann STRAUSS II (1825-1899) Muthig Voran! Polka schnell, Op.432 [2:52]
Ritter Pasman: Csardas [4:56]
Abschieds-Rufe – Walzer, Op.179 [9:40]
CD 2
Johann STRAUSS I (1804-1849) Furioso-Galopp nach Liszt’s Motiven, Op.114 [2:55]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886), arr. Ferruccio BUSONI (1866-1924) Mephisto Waltz No.1, S.514 [10:36]
Josef STRAUSS (1827-1870) Aus der Ferne – Polka mazur, Op.270 [5:19]
Johann STRAUSS II Spanischer Marsch Op.433 [5:14]
Joseph HELLMESBERGER (1855-1907) Zigeunertanz aus ‘Die Perle von Iberien’ [3:38]
Johann STRAUSS I Cachucha Galopp Op.97 [2:09]
Josef STRAUSS Mein Lebenslauf ist Lieb’ und Leben – waltz, Op.263 [7:56]
Eduard STRAUSS (1835-1916) Ohne Aufenthalt, Polka Schnell, Op.112 [2:30]
New Year’s Address 2011 [0:34]
Johann STRAUSS II An der schönen blauen Donau, Op.314 [10:26]
Johann STRAUSS I Radetzky March Op.228 [3:38]
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Franz Welser-Möst – rec. January 2011. DDD.
DECCA 478 2601 [46:18 + 54:55] – from amazon.co.uk (mp3) or deutschegrammophon.com (lossless)

If you’re already looking ahead to the New Year and/or you’re a fan of the Strauss family and didn’t get the 2011 concert when it was released, it’s yours for £8.49 from amazon.co.uk in mp3 or for £11.99 in lossless flac from the DGG shop. It was Franz Welser-Möst’s turn this year and, though there were no spectacular successes to match Karajan or Kleiber in former years or Boskowsky in the more distant past, there were no turkeys either.

Of course the VPO could play most of this music in their sleep, though there were some novelties in the programme: as usual, there’s something by Lanner and Hellmesberger, predecessor and rival of the dynasty respectively, but in Liszt’s bicentenary year we had an arrangement of his Mephisto Waltz by Busoni and a tribute to him from Johann Senior. I’m always pleased to see some of the talented and underrated Josef’s music included – two works this year. The recording is good, even in mp3. However informative the TV commentary is, it’s good to escape from it for repeated hearing.

Marco Polo’s complete series of the music of Johann Strauss Senior has reached Volume 18 without any sense of scraping of the bottom of the barrel. (8.225338 [65:22] - from classicsonline.com in mp3 or stream from Naxos Music Library). More next month.


 


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