January 2018 CD Reviews

February 2018 CD Reviews
San Francisco Symphony – Michael Tilson Thomas conducts Robert Schumann’s Symphonies [SFS Media]
January, 2018 |  A number of recordings of Schumann’s Symphonies have featured orchestras matching the modest size of those used in the composer’s day. The use of a full ensemble adds stature to the music as Wolfgang Sawallisch has shown in his highly praised recording (Dresden and Philadelphia) but because Schumann’s orchestration has been criticised, a view is sometimes taken that smaller forces result in greater clarity. In an accompanying essay Michael Tilson Thomas concedes that performers sometimes “do something to make the music more transparent” but goes on to explain that his own approach includes moments when accompanying lines are reduced or a leading melody strengthened. 
Tasmin Little plays Violin Concertos by Szymanowski & Karłowicz – BBC Symphony Orchestra/Edward Gardner [Chandos]
January, 2018 |  Although it comes third in the programme, it seems right to start with the Violin Concerto by Mieczysław Karłowicz (1876-1909), something of a rarity and, I would say, given the best performance. The composer is often lumped in with the Young Poland group, to which Karol Szymanowski belonged, but it would be fairer to say that Karłowicz was a Late Romantic... ... Believe it or not, this is Tasmin Little second recording of the Karłowicz... ... Little has been playing a certain amount of Szymanowski lately, and it was only a matter of time before she tackled the two Concertos on record. Both works were heavily influenced by the playing of the great violinist Paweł Kochański, a close friend of the composer and a fellow member of the Young Poland group, who provided the cadenzas. As most readers will remember, the Concertos are very different. ... I often find myself in disagreement with the Chandos recording ethos, which gives me the back of the orchestra in great detail while I have to search aurally for the strings. 
The Bad-Tempered Electronic Keyboard – Stephane Ginsburgh plays piano music by Anthony Burgess [Grand Piano]
January, 2018 |  Although Earthly Powers remains Anthony Burgess’s masterpiece – a wonderful, wonderful novel of immense power and impact – closely followed by Any Old Iron and (a little way behind) The Kingdom of the Wicked, it is through A Clockwork Orange by which the vast majority of people remember him, not least by way of Stanley Kubrick’s unforgettable film version. ... As with his literary work, Burgess composed pretty much throughout his life, and although it appears he was very largely self-taught, he managed to create a wide range of music over more than forty-five years, including three Symphonies, a number of Concertos and other orchestral works, alongside chamber music and music for piano. Which brings us to this release... 
Edward Gardner & Bergen Philharmonic – Grieg – Music for Peer Gynt and Jean-Efflam Bavouzet plays the Piano Concerto
January, 2018 |  It offers an excellent coupling, yet it is odd that the Bergen Philharmonic, of which Edvard Grieg himself was a conductor, did not give the premieres of either work. ... The Peer Gynt music is played complete in the most recent (1993) edition of the final version of 1902. It was originally composed in 1885 for Ibsen’s greatest play at the author’s request. ... Overall, whilst not entirely replacing versions by Beecham and Øivin Fjeldstad, Gardner must be considered a first choice for the complete Peer Gynt score, and in addition there is Jean-Efflam Bavouzet in the Piano Concerto. 
Christian Gerhaher & Gerold Huber – Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin [Sony Classical]
January, 2018 |  Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber first recorded Die schöne Müllerin fifteen years ago. Gerhaher is now in his late-forties and, recorded with palpable intimacy by Sony Classical, has all the expressive and imaginative musicianship you could ever desire in Schubert. As he has done in recital, Gerhaher recites the poems from Wilhelm Müller’s cycle that Schubert didn’t set... 
Jiří Bělohlávek conducts the Czech Philharmonic in Smetana’s Má vlast [Decca]
January, 2018 |  Jiří Bělohlávek passed away on May 31 last year at the age of seventy-one. It is appropriate that this memorial issue from Decca should commemorate his memory with Smetana’s cycle of symphonic poems, Má vlast (My Country), describing landmarks and events indigenous to Czechoslovakia and a perennial in the Czech Philharmonic’s calendar. 
Semyon Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic: The Tchaikovsky Project Volume 2 – Manfred Symphony [Decca]
January, 2018 |  Put simply I don’t know a finer conductor today of Tchaikovsky’s magnificent Manfred Symphony than Semyon Bychkov. ... With the Czech Philharmonic in wonderful form, superbly virtuosic and musically certain and sensitive, relishing some of Tchaikovsky’s most imaginative, descriptive and sophisticated orchestration, Bychkov certainly commands the power and passion of the music... 
Andrew Davis conducts Elgar – Falstaff – and Songs with Roderick Williams [BBC Philharmonic; Chandos]
January, 2018 |  Commenting on Elgar’s Falstaff sixty-four years ago, the composer Robert Simpson wrote: “Falstaff is perhaps Elgar’s greatest work. Perfect in form, profound in character portrayal... ... On this Chandos release the BBC Philharmonic plays as one of the World’s great orchestras. Yet it is of course Sir Andrew Davis who commands this performance as being superior in every way to any I have heard or can imagine. ... It was a different world then, and it is fascinating to hear such imaginative settings. They are, to be honest, not invariably in the same class as those by Richard Strauss, but are well-worth-knowing, and Elgar’s knowledge of the human voice was sufficiently experienced to enable him to create rewarding and appropriate vocal lines for his chosen texts. ... Quite apart from the merits of such examples as ‘The Pipes of Pan’ and ‘Pleading’, there is Roderick Williams... 
Scriabin’s Second Symphony & Piano Concerto – Oslo Philharmonic/Vasily Petrenko and Kirill Gerstein [Lawo Classics]
January, 2018 |  Alexander Scriabin’s Piano Concerto, from 1896, written when he was in his early-twenties, is his first work for orchestra, adding one to the piano he’d so far composed for; he was a concert-virtuoso on the instrument. ... Plenty of notes for the soloist to negotiate in the outer movements, mind, which Kirill Gerstein does with consummate ease as well as significant musicianship, the Oslo Philharmonic (sporting bewitching woodwind solos, clarinet especially) and Vasily Petrenko fully attuned to their guest’s dedicated and perceptive playing... 
Fieri Consort – Tears of a Lover [Fieri Records]
January, 2018 |  The eight-voice Fieri Consort’s first recording is impressive, produced by John Rutter. Fieri (from the Latin fio, “to become”) was formed in 2012 – drawn originally from Genesis Sixteen – and is finely blended, musically intelligent and technically secure, and here continues its exploration of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italian repertoire but, with an eye to an already-crowded market of Madrigals by Monteverdi and Marenzio, cannily introduces music by Ben Rowarth (born in 1992). 
Mozart’s Il sogno di Scipione – Classical Opera/Ian Page with Stuart Jackson, Klara Ek, Soraya Mafi, Krystian Adam, Robert Murray & Chiara Skerath [Signum]
January, 2018 |  Il sogno di Scipione (1771-2), the sixteen-year-old Mozart’s seventh stage work (counting the sacred singspiel Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots), is really more of a serenata than a conventional opera, as it is an allegorical vision rather than a fully dramatic narrative. ... That proves no hindrance to Ian Page and Classical Opera... ... Aficionados will know Leopold Hager’s 1979 recording which later appeared in Philips’s Complete Mozart Edition (also featuring both version of Licenza’s aria). That boasts an impressive cast, including Peter Schreier, Lucia Popp, Edita Gruberova and Edith Mathis... 
Wiener Symphoniker – Philippe Jordan conducts Beethoven’s First and Eroica Symphonies
January, 2018 |  A complete set of Beethoven’s Symphonies with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra is to be issued, released at intervals in time for the 2020 celebrations of the two-hundred-and-fiftieth-anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. They will be taken from Philippe Jordan’s concert performances during 2017. ... The ‘Eroica’ is given with well-judged pace even though the ‘Funeral March’ is swifter than usual. I returned to the earliest-ever Vienna Symphony Orchestra recording of this work, with Jascha Horenstein – big, uncompromising Beethoven... 
Stephen Hough plays Debussy [Hyperion]
January, 2018 |  With this Stephen Hough Debussy recital Hyperion is competing with itself for it matches almost exactly a recent release from Steven Osborne. The good news (there’s no bad) is that both are a rich addition to this composer’s recorded catalogue. While Osborne plays Masques and ... D’un cahier d’esquisses, Hough offers La plus que lente in their place... ... There is no need for a blow-by-blow account of this release’s contents, for each of the seventeen tracks is a highlight – nevertheless the allure of ‘Pagodes’ (Estampes) and the sensitivity of ‘Hommage à Rameau’ (Images I) are transporting, while the friskiness of ‘Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum’ is a particular delight... 
Kirill Karabits conducts William Walton’s Two Symphonies [Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; Onyx]
January, 2018 |  Well done to Kirill Karabits for conducting William Walton’s music, here his masterly if very different two Symphonies, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in very responsive form, although the recording quality, for all its clarity and vividness, tends to be over-edgy and too bright, and the acoustic is rather reverberant... ... So, it says much for Karabits’s conception of the magnificent First Symphony – a stunning masterpiece – that it outdoes any sonic problems. ... Twenty-five years later, in 1960, when Walton’s Second Symphony was unveiled (he’d taken his time, the commission had arrived in 1957), some critics were taken aback that he had not emulated his epic First, and failed to allow that stylistically he had moved on (as Elliott Carter and Michael Tippett were also doing). 
Rachel Barton Pine plays Violin Concertos by Edward Elgar and Max Bruch – BBC Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Litton [Avie]
January, 2018 |  I did at first react scornfully to seeing another Bruch No.1 listed; it’s a splendid piece but simply programmed too often and easily. Then I listened: very impressive from Rachel Barton Pine and Andrew Litton. ... The Elgar is perhaps the greater prize, a flexible and expansive account (fifty-one minutes) if lacking nothing in direction. Litton is a sympathetic Elgarian, impulses and emphases finely judged... ... This release is “Dedicated to the memory of a musical hero and generous friend, Sir Neville Marriner”. 
The Leonore Piano Trio plays Johann Peter Pixis [Hyperion]
January, 2018 |  Johann Peter Pixis (1788-1874) is sadly neglected nowadays; with the recent exception of Stephen Hough and Howard Shelley, few musicians have paid any attention to him although in his day he was greatly respected, particularly so in Paris where the Mannheim-born composer resided from 1825 to 1845. His style of composition indicates that his birth-date lay between those of Beethoven and Schubert but some of his fiery fast-moving piano sequences suggest Mendelssohn. ... The members of the Leonore Piano Trio rightly concentrate on the inherent optimism for the quieter melodies are too innocent to be sentimentalised and the straightforwardness of the reading makes for an ideal approach. 
Johannes Brahms – The Three Piano Trios – Emanuel Ax, Leonidas Kavakos & Yo-Yo Ma [Sony Classical]
January, 2018 |  These are magnificent performances of Brahms’s three acknowledged Piano Trios which, as far as I am concerned, go straight to the top of the list. The architect of their supremacy is Emanuel Ax... ... The string-playing does not exude the same personality, although both Leonidas Kavakos and Yo-Yo Ma have the Brahms style at their fingertips. 
Martyn Brabbins conducts Michael Tippett – Symphonies 1 & 2 – BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra [Hyperion]
January, 2018 |  What a momentous way to start 2018, with the first release in a new Michael Tippett Symphony Cycle, courtesy of Hyperion and Martyn Brabbins... ... London-born Sir Michael Tippett (1905-98) is one of the great composers... ... ...a terrific place to start would be the Second Symphony (1957). ... The first movement, with its pounding Vivaldi-inspired bass line (supplemented by a piano) and ecstatically dancing violins is simply irresistible... ... If not his first such work, the Symphony that he was eventually able to assign as No.1 (completed in 1945) could only be by Tippett (and surely displaying his admiration for Bach, Beethoven and Hindemith, the latter composer far more esteemed then than he has become, sadly) – a first movement of vigour, rigour and confidence... 


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