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The Princess and the Bear
Richard STRAUSS (1864–1949)
Duet-Concertino, TrV293 (1947)1 [21:47]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770–1827)
Trio in E-flat, Op.38 (1803)2 [39:12]
Mikhail GLINKA (1804–1857)
Trio pathétique in d minor3 [15:08]
Sarah Watts (clarinet)1-3, Laurence Perkins (bassoon)1-3, Martin Roscoe (piano)2-3
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Sian Edwards1
rec. Henry Wood Hall, Glasgow, 7-8 July 2014 (Beethoven and Glinka), 11 March 2015 (Strauss). DDD.
Reviewed as 24/96 download with pdf booklet from hyperion-records.co.uk.
HYPERION CDA68263 [76:12]

Don’t overlook this gem of a recording, as I almost did until I heard some of the Strauss Concertino on Radio 3, and as Hyperion appear to have done, having kept it from us for three to four years.

The Strauss Duet-Concertino, a seldom-recorded and hitherto misunderstood work, is worth the cover price alone. The strongest competitor comes on a 2-CD set from Avie, with the Sinfonia Domestica and the Alpine Symphony, two works which you either love and probably own already or hate (AV2071 – review).

The Concertino is a late work from Strauss’s Indian Summer with an underlying story about a beautiful girl playing a clarinet in the wood when a bear, represented by the bassoon, comes and dances with her. At first his music is clumsy and rhythmically at odds with the girl’s but as they settle into a joint rhythm he is transformed into a handsome prince. At least, this programme, as reconstructed by Laurence Perkins from a letter written by the composer, makes musical sense.  It’s also a change from the traditional prince-as-frog and it allows the bassoon to inject its humour into this charming piece – after all, it’s a fortunate accident that the words ‘bassoon’ and ‘buffoon’ sound so alike.

The solo performances are first-rate and the strings and harp of the SNO under Sian Edwards’ direction offer an excellent accompaniment, never forcing the pace. I’m pleased to see Edwards’ return to the recording scene. Her recordings for EMI, including her very recommendable Tchaikovsky (1812, etc), seem to be download only from Warner and heavily over-priced by comparison with the last appearance on budget-price Classics for Pleasure.

I’m a little less over the moon about the two other works. It’s not that they are not well played – they are, very well – and it’s not that these two works are not worthwhile, but they breathe a different atmosphere from the Strauss and from each other. Perhaps that explains the delay in releasing the CD. Certainly, I would have preferred something else from Strauss’s late period, such as the Oboe Concerto of 1945, but that would have incurred the expense of an extra soloist.

The Oboe Concerto is on the Avie recording, but again subject to reservations about the other music. It’s also available on a recent BIS SACD on which Alexei Ogrintchouk is soloist with the Concertgebouw Orchestra and Andris Nelsons (BIS-SACD-2163 – review review). As downloaded in 24/96 sound from eclassical.com, with pdf booklet, that offers as fine an account of the concerto as that of John de Lancie, the American soldier who commissioned the work and recorded in for RCA (download only or stream from Naxos Music Library). My only reservation about the BIS recording is that it mixes very different styles from early and late Strauss.

Beethoven’s Op.38 has a complicated history; it’s essentially a downscaled version of his earlier Septet, Op.20, with the clarinet part given to the violin and the bassoon part reassigned to the cello, with both parts on this Hyperion release very effectively returned to the original instruments. The version with clarinet is, strictly speaking, designated WoO38. Unusually for Beethoven, it’s fun music which, in the form of the original Septet, had a considerable influence on Schubert’s even more fun-filled Octet and Spohr’s music for double-quartet and nonet.

If you are looking for a recording of Op.38 in its guise for clarinet, piano and cello, a new recording from Alpha, made in July 2017 in connection with the Festival of Salon de Provence, may do the trick: it’s coupled with the Op.11 ‘Gassenhauser’ Trio for the same combination, the alternative version of his Piano Trio No.4, in performances by Érich le Sage (piano), Paul Meyer (clarinet) and Claudio Bohórquez (cello) on Alpha 405. At 58:07, it’s rather short value for a full-price CD, but so are the rival recordings which couple Op.11 and Op.38, apart from performances by the Gould Piano Trio and Robert Plane (clarinet) on which both trios are separated by the ‘Kakadu’ variations (SOMMCD0135 – review).

The Alpha performances are fine, with an especially enjoyable account of the theme and variations finale of Op.11 and the presto finale of Op.38.  My press preview, however, came in low quality mp3 at 192 kb/s, so I can’t comment authoritatively on the CD or better-quality downloads, though it sounds well enough considering.

The Glinka is, as its name implies, less of a fun piece, but it also receives a very convincing performance.

The Hyperion recording, as heard in 24/96 format, has a very realistic as-if-you-were-there quality – a little close, but only if heard on headphones – and the notes in the booklet, from Laurence Perkins, are up to Hyperion’s usual high standard. I end with my opening advice not to overlook this gem.

Brian Wilson

 




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