This month’s highlights from the Naxos Music Group include Shostakovich’s Fifth and Ninth Symphonies; Vol. 17 in the acclaimed ‘Music of Brazil’ series; Paul Chihara’s Concerto-Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra; 19th-century German repertoire transcriptions for violin and piano; Franz Schreker’s hugely successful opera Der Schatzgräber; Antonio Sacchini’s oratorio conducted by Franz Hauk; the 28th instalment in Domenico Scarlatti’s Complete Keyboard Sonatas series; and more. Klaus Heymann, founding chairman of Naxos, puts the spotlight on his personal picks.
This album features Shostakovich’s Fifth and Ninth Symphonies, two of his most approachable that are also among the most frequently performed 20th-century symphonies. Complementing the accessibility of the programme, however, is the outstanding quality of both conductor and orchestra. There’s a developing awareness of the excellence of Asian orchestras that has generally escaped wider attention up to now, and the Hong Kong Philharmonic is certainly a leader in this field, not least for having been named Orchestra of the Year at Gramophone’s 2019 Classical Music Awards. Its present conductor, Jaap van Zweden, serves concurrently as the music director of the New York Philharmonic. In 2018, van Zweden and the Hong Kong Philharmonic completed their project to record Wagner’s Ring cycle which certainly caught the attention of the critics, not least for its ‘thrilling sense of drama’ (The Sunday Times, London) and for its nomination as Gramophone’s Critics Choice of the Year, dubbing it a ‘standard-setting and sonically beguiling Ring cycle.’ I have no doubt that they’re about to beguile us again with these Shostakovich interpretations.
Naxos’ ‘The Music of Brazil’ series is a collaboration with the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs that builds on its reputation with each successive release. It’s a substantial project that will eventually number some 30 new albums of music by Brazilian composers, many featuring world premiere recordings; this latest release is Vol. 17 and the featured composer is the preeminent Heitor Villa-Lobos. The programme comprises three works for cello and orchestra in which the soloist is veteran cellist Antonio Menenses, who won the First Prize and Gold Medal at Moscow’s 1982 Tchaikovsky Competition at the age of 25. Orchestra and conductor also boast impressive achievements in the performance of Villa-Lobos’ music, including their acclaimed recordings (8.506039) of his complete symphonies, described as ‘definitive, super-charged performances’ by The WholeNote. Musical chemistry doesn’t get much better than this.
While composer Paul Chihara’s name is new to our American Classics series, he’s already well-established internationally as a sought-after composer of ballet, film and television scores; he’s also the recipient of numerous notable awards and commissions; and he boasts an extensive catalogue of orchestral, choral and chamber works. From his early works influenced by Japanese heritage to his recent compositions exploring new soundscapes, Chihara’s music is a treasure trove of innovation and beauty. Always rich in content and attractive to a wide audience, previous recordings of his music on other labels have been well received. The programme features award-winning pianist Quynh Nguyen, who ‘excels in everything that requires elegance, proportion, balance, taste, and wit.’ (Boston Globe) She’s the dedicatee of Chihara’s Concerto-Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra, a work inspired by traditional Vietnamese music. It’s heard here in its world premiere recording and features the excellent London Symphony Orchestra directed by Stephen Barlow.
I’m delighted that the two artists on this album have joined forces again, not least because their previous release on Naxos (8.574085) was rewarded with an ICMA nomination. That was for their performance of pianist/composer Fazil Say’s two Violin Sonatas, in which the composer accompanied star violin soloist Friedemann Eichhorn, whose many recordings for Naxos have consistently attracted high praise. This follow-up programme features established German Romantic repertoire for violin and piano, together with the F-A-E Sonata, a collaborative work by composers Dietrich, Schumann and Brahms that rarely features in its complete form in catalogues. The programme closes with world premiere recordings of Say’s ingenious transcriptions of excerpts from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. I can guarantee you'll be spellbound from first to last note.
Following their huge success with Korngold’s Das Wunder der Heliane (2.110584-85/NBD0083V), director Christof Loy and conductor Marc Albrecht teamed up again for Deutsche Oper Berlin’s revival of Franz Schreker’s neglected opera Der Schatzgräber (‘The Treasure Hunter’). A masterpiece that explores themes of love, power and greed, it was a triumph at its premiere in 1920, but a National Socialist ban on performances eventually sealed its demise. Set in a mythical world, the story follows the journey of a young prince as he searches for a hidden treasure. Along the way, he encounters a series of challenges and is forced to confront his own desires and weaknesses. Schreker’s lush and expressive score is a perfect match for the intricate and evocative libretto, creating a truly immersive and unforgettable listening experience. I suspect this acclaimed 2022 production is now the only audiovisual version available, so significant interest from collectors is to be expected for ‘a work of exceptional quality, concentration and significance’, to quote Marc Albrecht, who was praised by bachtrack.com for his ‘balancing act between opulent sensuality of sound and impressionistic lyricism.’ With a plot involving a complex and tragic tale of destructive greed, desire and toxic social hierarchy, the work offers both a subject of relevance for modern times and a score of stylistic richness. This is a must-hear for fans of opera and anyone looking for a captivating tale of adventure and self-discovery.
Also available on Blu-ray Video (NBD0173V)
Antonio Sacchini (1730–1786) is sadly under-represented in catalogues, with only a handful of his numerous operas and a smattering of his chamber works available. Naxos’ 2006 release of Sacchini’s opera Oedipe à Colone (8.660196-97) remains a standard-bearer as ‘‘one of those relatively rare instances where an ‘unearthed gem’ reveals an opera that once rightfully belonged to the main course, rather than just an interesting side dish.’’ (AllMusic.com) Now we’re adding Sacchini’s 1765 oratorio L’abbandono delle ricchezze di S. Filippo Neri to our list of world premiere recordings. I’m delighted that Franz Hauk has taken up the work again. Franz is well known for his revivals of the music of Johann Simon Mayr in numerous Naxos recordings that include Mayr’s oratorio Il sagrifizio di Jefte (8.572719-20) in which ‘the music, performances and recording are all first-rate.’ (Fanfare)
With only four volumes still in the pipeline, our edition of Domenico Scarlatti’s complete keyboard sonatas nears its conclusion with this release of Volume 28. It’s another attractive selection from the composer’s hugely original and imaginative keyboard output that would take two days to perform end-to-end. One of the distinctions of our edition is that all the performances are given on modern instruments; another is that it showcases a panoply of eminent pianists, not a single performer. This instalment is in the hands of the ‘prodigiously talented’ (Los Angeles Times) Sang Woo Kang, a chamber musician, concerto soloist and recitalist who gives masterclasses and performances in North America, Asia, Central and South America and Europe. Laureate of the Mozart International Young Artist Competition, Sang Woo Kang is also the recipient of a grant from the Whiting Foundation for research into and recordings of Domenico Scarlatti’s music.
First performed in 1968, Henze’s secular oratorio for soprano, baritone, speaker, mixed choir, boys choir and orchestra takes its title from the source of its inspiration, namely Théodore Géricault’s hugely imposing 1819 painting The Raft of the Medusa. It’s also a political statement, a reflection of the painting’s tragic subject matter and essentially a Requiem for Che Guevara that encouraged students at its premiere to hang a large poster of the revolutionary from the rostrum rail. The subsequent chanting, scuffles and police intervention caused the performance to be abandoned. Recordings and performances of the work have been extremely thin on the ground since, making this release one that really is not to be missed. The inclusion of a full libretto and translations will prove a distinct help in introducing the work to first-time listeners. Conductor Cornelius Meister delivers a powerful and emotive live performance from his distinguished choral and orchestral forces, fully capturing the score's dramatic tension.
This is Vol. 9 in Capriccio’s project to record Bruckner’s symphonies in all nineteen versions that are either published or soon to be published in the New Anton Bruckner Collected Works Edition, under the auspices of the Austrian National Library. With conductor Markus Poschner directing each performance (the final two volumes will be recorded later this year) the level of pervasive authority could not be more impressive, nor the project more timely, with 2024 marking the 200th anniversary of Bruckner’s birth. This release brings us to the mid-point of the eighteen-volume project and expectations are already high that this will become the definitive edition. Although the premiere of the Second Symphony was quite well received, Bruckner and his team of assistants set about reworking it in 1877, trimming it of any superfluous material, most significantly in the Finale. This recording of that 1877 version observes all those cuts. Noting the ‘fleet, idiomatic and clear-sighted interpretation’ of the Eighth Symphony’s 1887 version (C8087), Gramophone’s reviewer went on to add ‘I’m inclined to think it’s the finest performance of the score now available.’ This has been a typical observation throughout the edition to date, and one I'm certain will continue to its completion.
This edition of Beethoven's complete symphonies will fast become a collector’s item. The project not only serves to acknowledge Beethoven’s cumulative symphonic greatness; it also stands as a tribute to the lifelong achievements of conductor Zubin Mehta, whose immense discography is now crowned with this latest testament to his skill and extensive experience (he was born in 1936). The live recordings were made with the Orchestra and Chorus of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino during the 2021/22 seasons and come here in both audio and audiovisual formats, including Blu-ray. Hans Swarowsky, with whom the 18-year-old Mehta studied conducting at the Vienna Academy of Music, predicted that he would become ‘a great figure in the history of music’. Here‘s a clear vindication of that confidence.
Robert Treviño’s star has risen rapidly among American conductors, helped in no small measure by his four recordings for Ondine. The first comprised Beethoven’s Complete Symphonies (ODE1348-5Q) which received an Opus Klassik nomination, ClassicsToday.com noting that ‘Robert Trevino’s stylish flair, astute musicianship, and good taste are never in doubt.’ His most recent album of Rautavaara’s works for violin and orchestra (ODE1405-2) was noted for its ‘electric, vivid performances.’ (American Record Guide) You can expect all those qualities to be on show again in his latest release that features Respighi’s Roman Trilogy in performances by Italy’s Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della RAI; Robert is the orchestra’s principal guest conductor. The trilogy comprises Respighi's three symphonic poems (Roman Festivals, Fountains of Rome, Pines of Rome) that are renowned for their lush harmonies and sweeping melodies, and for the colourful instrumentation that became a hallmark of his output. You’ll find that conductor and orchestra certainly produce all the fizz these orchestral fireworks demand in truly thrilling performances.
Recommending this album is a bittersweet affair. Pianist Lars Vogt, who died prematurely last year, enjoyed a fine international reputation as a pianist, exemplified by his receipt of the 2021 OPUS Klassik award for Piano Album of the Year (ODE1382-2). He assumed the post of pianist/conductor of the Orchestre de chambre de Paris in 2020, but was subsequently diagnosed with cancer. Mid-treatment, he expressed an urgent desire to record a Mozart piano concerto album, believing it would be the best medicine for his condition; this release is the result. The producer of the recording, Christoph Franke, tells of how ‘Lars absolutely wanted to record this Mozart album. He had, I believe, things in common with Mozart: this overflowing joie de vivre, this energy.’ The two concertos on the programme are an ideal pairing. There's the early, exuberant Piano Concerto No. 9, ‘Jeunehomme’, written by Mozart in his early 20s, together with the melancholic Piano Concerto No. 24, considered by many to be Mozart’s greatest and giving perfect closure to Lars Vogt’s final concerto album.
Royal Opera favourite Bryn Terfel heads the cast for this exhilarating production of Don Pasquale, Donizetti’s comedy of domestic drama across two generations. The opera has long delighted and surprised audiences, not least for the sparkle of its music and the virtuoso skill required of its performers. Damiano Michieletto’s production shows how contemporary the characters still are, and how immediate and touching the story remains. You’ll find that it’s a delight from start to finish, as did the press: ‘Don Pasquale is a genuinely funny comic opera and Damiano Michieletto’s production updates it in a way that makes it funnier still.’ (The Daily Express); ‘Evelino Pidò conducts with admirable precision and grace.’ (The Guardian); ‘Olga Peretyatko... a soprano of diamond-cut brilliance’ (The Financial Times); ‘Bryn Terfel’s Pasquale ... is a brilliant creation, more sympathetically imagined than any character he has incarnated thus far in his career.’ (The Independent)
Also available on Blu-ray Video (OABD7274D)
This is a new production of Shakespeare’s All's Well That Ends Well by the Royal Shakespeare Company. It’s one the Bard’s ‘problem plays’, performed relatively infrequently, that shifts abruptly between comedy and dark drama in its exploration of love, persistence and the ultimate triumph of the human spirit. The plot presents the character of Helena (Rosie Sheehy), who is convinced that she and wealthy Bertram (Benjamin Westerby) are well matched. He’s not so sure. After engineering their betrothal, Helena will go to any length to bring her idealised version of romance to life. But what happens when the reality of their relationship doesn’t match up to the fantasy? ‘A fine cast brings energy and conviction’ (The Guardian) to this fresh, dynamic production that's ‘brilliant, just brilliant.’ (Stratford Herald)
Also available on Blu-ray Video (CATNO3)