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Next month’s set of new releases from the Naxos Music Group includes the world premiere recording of an opera based on a pop album, Rachmaninov’s piano preludes, operas by Weber, Auber and Vaccaj, orchestral works by Weiner and Einem, and sacred music by Vanhal. Klaus Heymann, founding chairman of Naxos, puts the spotlight on his personal picks.
If you thought crossover was becoming old hat, then think again. At the time of its release in 2001, Björk’s pop album Vespertine shocked with its departure from the Icelandic singer’s usual drum-and-bass backing to one of complex orchestral music. Now it returns as an opera. The album’s multi-track vocals have been transformed into an ensemble of four soloists and two choirs, while the switch from electronic to acoustic sounds now finds the large orchestra accommodating a range of alternative timbres, from sandwich paper to glass. The plot retains all Björk’s surrealism to produce a poetic evocation of a magical dream world. The verdict: not to be missed.

Rachmaninov’s sets of Preludes, written in all 24 major and minor keys, stand in the great tradition of similar works by Bach and Chopin. Their rich variety reflects Rachmaninov’s development as a composer, with no two preludes fully alike. Differentiation of tempo, register, colour, texture and mood define each prelude’s character. There can be no better pianist for establishing this panoramic sweep than Naxos artist Boris Giltburg, who has already achieved international fame as a Rachmaninov interpreter in both solo and concerto repertoire. I refer you to his Études-tableaux, Op. 39 (8.573469), a Gramophone Recording of the Month, American Record Guide Critic’s Choice and BBC Music Magazine Instrumental Choice; and to the universal acclaim that greeted his recording of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (8.573630), for which this comment from Gramophone was typical: ‘a vividly imaginative recreation of a score that lives and breathes with irresistible vitality.’

2.110597 [DVD]
It’s not difficult to understand why Der Freischütz proved to be Weber’s breakthrough opera, and the one that went on to be his most popular. Even today, nearly 200 years after its premiere in 1821, Weber’s control of orchestral colour and atmosphere continues to grip audiences. With its fabric of native folklore and folk songs, the story of a marksman making a pact with the Devil established itself as one of the earliest German romantic operas. Its power and intensity remain undiminished, not least when meeting the technical challenges of the famous Wolf’s Glen scene. The conductor of this performance is the internationally acclaimed Myung-Whun Chung and the stage director is Matthias Hartmann, who was director of the prestigious Burgtheater in Vienna from 2009 to 2014. The release is available in both DVD and Blu-ray (NBD0092V) formats.

At long last Auber’s opera La Sirène is receiving the acknowledgment it deserves. This world premiere recording of the work helps us understand why Auber enjoyed a central role in French musical life at the time of its composition in 1844. The mysterious siren of the title is part of a plot that abounds in fantastic comedy, love, betrayal, farce and festivity, elements that characterised Italian popular theatre of the day.  The production boasts a strong line-up of French soloists in addition to Les Métaboles, a chorus of young professional French singers, and the Orchestre des Frivolités Parisiennes, an ensemble formed specifically to showcase French opéra comique.

This is the much anticipated second volume in our series of Leó Weiner’s orchestral works. Following their success with Volume 1, the Budapest Symphony Orchestra MÁV and conductor Valéria Csányi team up again for this recording of his symphonic poem Toldi. Inspired by a masterpiece of Hungarian literature and cast in twelve tableaux of almost cinematic drama, Weiner considered Toldi one of his most significant works. During his lifetime, Weiner’s influence as a teacher in Budapest was exceptional – his pupils were some of the greatest musicians of the 20th-century, such as Fritz Reiner, Georg Solti and Janos Starker. But it’s only in recent years that his compositions, with their synthesis of German Romantic and Hungarian elements, have been brought to wider appreciation, and I am pleased that Naxos is making this contribution to the restoration of Weiner’s reputation. He revisited the score twice, condensing the music into two suites, respectively of ten and six movements, which are being released concurrently as a digital exclusive on 9.70284.

The Austrian composer Gottfried von Einem played a major role in rebuilding his country’s music scene after 1945, following the devastating cultural policies of Austrofascism that were particularly hostile to modern trends. Der Prozess (The Trial) is his second opera; the libretto is based on the novel by Franz Kafka. Von Einem’s music is frequently characterised by catchy thematic and melodic ideas, sharply accentuated rhythms, dance-like vigour and a marked variety of timbre, qualities that are all present in Der Prozess. The opera’s first performance was given at the Salzburg Festival in 1953. This audio recording, from the 2018 Salzburg Festival, is conducted by HK Gruber, himself a composer and former student of von Einem. Most of the twelve distinguished solo singers each take on several roles and are accompanied by the equally distinguished ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra.

DYN-37832 [DVD]
Nicola Vaccaj, a pupil of Paisiello and contemporary of Rossini, was a much admired composer of bel canto opera in his day. A pity, then, that Giulietta e Romeo, his most notable success, has been neglected for so long. Now, however, you can appreciate the greatness of the work in this DVD recording from last year’s Festival della Valle d’Itria. Conductor Sesto Quatrini and director Cecilia Ligorio lead a strong cast of soloists whose performances were admired by Bachtrack: Leonor Bonilla (Giulietta) ‘an elegant and fluid soprano, and great acting skills’; Leonardo Cortellazzi (Capellio) ‘imposing…refined phrasing and diction’; Paoletta Marrocu (Adele) ‘great vocal talent and poignant expressiveness’; and Raffaella Lupinacci (Romeo) ‘currently one of the most appreciated mezzo-sopranos in Italy [who] possesses a beautiful vocal colour.’

Also available on Blu-ray (DYN-57832) and 2 CDs (CDS7832.02).

Following his move to Vienna in 1760, Johann Baptist Vanhal’s name may have been overshadowed by the city’s illustrious core of composers, namely Haydn, Salieri, Mozart and Beethoven, but he was far from being only a minor master. There were many pioneering aspects to his music in his early years, especially in the field of the symphony. Sadly, a period of mid-life delusion diverted him to write purely ecclesiastical music, but it was a prolific diversion that produced some 60 masses, 60 motets, two requiems, various litanies, a Te Deum and a Stabat Mater. This programme represents those two contrasting aspects of Vanhal’s output: the Missa Solemnis, a work of quality and opulence; his more conservative Stabat Mater; and the Symphony in D major, with its unusual formal structure that seems to presage Beethoven.

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