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Next month’s release highlights from the Naxos Music Group include new productions of operas by Purcell, Mozart, Verdi, Richard Strauss and Spontini, Beethoven’s other Mass, a collection of American orchestral works, as well as music by Magnard and Čiurlionis, piano concertos by Brahms and Dohnányi, 1920s recordings by Rachmaninov, and a radical revival of Shakespeare’s comedy. Klaus Heymann, founding chairman of Naxos, puts the spotlight on his personal picks.
This production is an audiovisual treat that boasts a top-notch meeting of minds, both past and present. The 1691 collaboration between the poet John Dryden and composer Henry Purcell for King Arthur marked a conspicuous leap forward for English opera; and conductor René Jacobs’ instrumental and vocal forces all prove their reputations as leading interpreters of Baroque music in this 2017 performance from the Berlin State Opera. Purcell’s semi-opera wowed audiences of the time not only with its vocal show-stoppers, such as the enduring Fairest isle and Frost Scene, but also with its impressive costumes, lavish sets and ingenious stage machinery. More than 300 years on, none of that impact is diminished in a performance that will surely have wide appeal.
Also available on Blu-ray (NBD0109V)
Conductor James Judd is a significant Naxos artist who has demonstrated his authority on American repertoire with numerous previous releases, witness the critical response to his recording of Copland’s Third Symphony and Billy the Kid (8.559106): ‘Two Copland masterpieces in superbly idiomatic performances – a must buy.’ (Gramophone) Collectors should note that this performance of Gershwin’s An American in Paris is performed in the new 2019 critical edition that uses the composer’s original orchestration, unheard for 75 years. Topping the bill is Bernstein’s celebratory Songfest with a superb line-up of vocalists. The work was written to mark the Bicentennial Year in America and sets verses by 13 of the country’s poets. James’ flair is well complemented throughout the programme by the gifted young American musicians of the National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic in a release that is guaranteed to prove yet another winner for them.
Listen to an extract from Bernstein’s Songfest
Listen to an extract from Mass in C major, Op. 86: III. Credo
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Although Albéric Magnard’s output was relatively small, his uncompromising perfectionism produced a catalogue that is filled with expansive, complex and beautifully crafted music. This recording of neglected and rarely heard works joins our two releases of Magnard’s complete symphonies that also featured the Freiburg Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Fabrice Bollon (8.574082, 8.574083). The Suite d’orchestre dans le style ancien, composed while Magnard was still a student with Vincent d’Indy, follows 18th-century models and is simultaneously solemn and joyful in mood. The Chant funèbre is considered his first true masterpiece; and the significance of justice and love in Magnard’s life is expressed in the Hymne à la justice and Hymne à Vénus, reflecting every aspect of the love he experienced, from tenderness to elation.
Listen to an extract from Hymne à la justice
Volume 4 in our Rachmaninov Solo Piano Recordings series (8.111407) was recognised with a Gramophone Choice recommendation (‘utterly and undeniably compelling’); Volume 5 (8.111408) received a Diapason d’Or award. I’m now happy to recommend Volume 6 to collectors without reservation. It marks the point in Rachmaninov’s career when he switched to recording for the Victor company. It should be noted that our edition uniquely presents Rachmaninov’s recording output in chronological order. The programme includes the Saint-Saëns-Siloti Le Cygne test pressing, which exists as a single known copy, now in the International Piano Archives at Maryland. Of even greater interest is the first ever release of takes from Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, which restoration engineer Ward Marston did not use in his 1992 transfer of the concerto for RCA Red Seal/Sony.
Listen to an extract from Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (recorded 1924)
This is the first production of Verdi’s whimsical opera Falstaff by French stage director Laurent Pelley, a specialist in opera buffa repertoire. And what a triumph it turned out to be, from the ingenious stagecraft to a brilliant musical delivery. Operawire observed that ‘Pelly directs his comedies as if they were Broadway shows, with a clear definition of the characters and creating big musical numbers where all the singers on stage dance.’ In this 2019 performance from the Teatro Real Madrid, conductor Daniele Rustioni unpacked the score's complexity with unusual clarity and finesse, aided by an excellent team of singers, from the splendid Roberto de Candia as Sir John Falstaff to the earthy mezzo-soprano Daniela Barcellona as Mistress Quickly.
Also available on Blu-ray (BAC477)
The items on this Zemlinsky programme from the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra provide an excellent snapshot of the Austrian composer’s style. Dating from 1913, the Maeterlinck Songs are a masterly testimony to late tonality, extremely intense in expression, yet balancing both delicacy and urgency. The soloist is the distinguished soprano Petra Lang, noted for her fine performances of Wagner and Mahler. Premiered in 1935, the Sinfonietta, Op. 23 gives a nod to the jazz-oriented music of the 1920s while also carrying echoes of Mahler, Stravinsky and Hindemith. These two works are conducted by Susanna Mälkki, chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra. Completing the programme are two sections of another late work, the Prelude and Monologue from Zemlinsky’s opera Der König Kandaules. This is the first release of that material from the orchestra’s archives. It features conductor Gerd Albrecht and baritone Peter Lorenz.
Listen to an extract from Sinfonietta, Op. 23: III. Rondo: Sehr Lebhaft
The Hungarian composer Ernst von Dohnányi (1877–1960) was one of the most versatile and influential musicians of his time, but his stage works, orchestral compositions and numerous chamber music pieces are now seldom played. This latest volume in a series of releases of Dohnányi’s music from Capriccio consequently provides a welcome opportunity for some overdue promotion; two more volumes are in the pipeline and I urge you to keep an eye out for them. The two piano concertos on this release are in expert hands. Pianist Sofia Gülbadamova, an acknowledged expert in Dohnányi’s piano music, has already released his complete works for solo piano on Capriccio (C5332), with Gramophone describing her playing as a ‘full-blooded, stirring interpretation’. Conductor Ariane Matiakh has also made successful recordings for Capriccio, including one of Zara Levina’s Piano Concertos (C5269) which received nominations for both ICMA and GRAMMY awards.
Listen to an extract from Piano Concerto No. 2 in B minor, Op. 42
There’s been a major renaissance of interest in the music of Erich Wolfgang Korngold over the last three decades, and it’s gratifying to note he’s no longer the neglected master and undiscovered wunderkind of 20th-century classical music. As part of that trend to generate a wider appreciation of Korngold’s music, the Bruckner Orchestra Linz under Caspar Richter made recordings for ASV in the late 1990s and early 2000s, from which this 4-disc boxed set has been compiled. They were pioneering efforts at the time and remain much appreciated for the overview they give us of Korngold’s oeuvre, beyond the handful of greatest hits available elsewhere. ‘Enjoyable music with not a dull track anywhere.’ (MusicWeb International on the original release)
Listen to an extract from Der Sturm
Fernand Cortez, ou La conquête du Mexique (Hernán Cortés, or The Conquest of Mexico) was Gaspare Spontini’s second French grand opera. It was commissioned by none other than Napoleon Bonaparte who aimed to use it as propaganda to obtain public support for his military campaign in Spain. This is the opera's world premiere audiovisual recording. As for audio recordings, there’s only a single historical version of a live 1951 performance sung in Italian, whereas this release represents the first recording of the original French version. ‘Extremely well sung, superb diction, and the leads are fabulous’ was how Opera Lounge judged the performance, while Classical Music Daily reported that Cecilia Ligorio’s production for the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino festival ‘seriously deserves to be considered for the Abbiati Prize, the Italian Oscar award for operas.’ OperaWire, impressed by the cast of singers, commented in particular on ‘the standout solo performance of the evening … from the Greek soprano, Alexia Voulgaridou, in the role of Amazily, whose expressive performance uncovered the nobility and suffering of her character.’ I should add that the production uses Federico Agostinelli’s critical edition published by the Fondazione Pergolesi Spontini.
There are very few recordings of the Brahms piano concertos conducted from the keyboard, and these are now crowned by this release from the ever impressive Lars Vogt and the Royal Northern Sinfonia. Vogt is now in his fifth year as the orchestra’s music director; together and individually they have gathered an impressive tally of awards and recommendations for their recordings during that time. Their January release of Brahms’ First Piano Concerto (ODE 1330-2) was a Gramophone Editor’s Choice (‘The music-making is nothing short of sensational’) and I confidently anticipate an enthusiastic reception for this companion release of the Second Piano Concerto, a cornerstone of the concerto repertoire. In his dual role as soloist and conductor, listeners will be left in no doubt about Vogt’s singular understanding of the essential Brahms.
Listen to an extract from Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 83
The music of polymath Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis has long deserved more attention, so I’m delighted that it’s now achieving a higher profile, not least with this welcome release. Čiurlionis was a visionary in his orchestral works and could be considered Lithuania’s national composer. For the international public, however, his fame rests mainly on his paintings. Recordings of his symphonic works have been surprisingly few, but here we now have the restored original scores of his symphonic poems In the Forest and The Sea, as well as the first commercial recording of his overture Kęstutis, reconstructed and published in 2010. The informative liner notes have been written by a direct descendant of the composer, while the performance has perfect exponents in the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra under Modestas Pitrėnas, one of Lithuania’s leading conductors.
Listen to an extract from Kęstutis Overture
This live performance of Richard Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten from the Vienna State Opera marked both the centenary of the opera’s first performance and the 150th anniversary of the opera house itself. There could be no-one better than Christian Thielemann to be musical director of such a gala occasion, given his status as one of today’s leading conductors and his affinity for Strauss’ music (‘He is the only composer I would have liked to meet in person.’). The three leading women’s roles are crucial to any successful performance, and this production had the benefit of ‘a superb trio of sopranos: Camilla Nylund, Nina Stemme and Evelyn Herlitzius … a rare treat to hear three such great Straussian voices.’ (Bachtrack.com)
Listen to an extract from Act I – Licht uberm see (Amme, Geisterbote)
Idomeneo is regarded by many as Mozart’s first masterpiece for the opera house. It was his third venture into opera seria and demolished the genre’s traditional boundaries, paving the way for lyric drama. Robert Carsen’s ‘politically poetic staging’ (Opera News), set in present-day Crete, features a first-rate cast that includes American tenor Eric Cutler in the title role; he’s widely admired for his bel canto performances, especially in Mozart's operas. All aspects of this Teatro Real production met with universal acclaim, not least its musical direction: ‘Conductor Ivor Bolton, Music Director of the house, is a guarantee of success, especially when it comes to Mozart. And he has proved it once again with an excellent, lively reading. The Teatro Real orchestra, as always, was outstanding, and so too was the chorus.’ (Seen and Heard International)
Also available on Blu-ray (OABD7276D)
Shakespeare’s comedy is given a radical, gender-swapping makeover in this ground-breaking production from the Royal Shakespeare Company that was described as ‘Bonkers…but brilliant’ by the The Sunday Times. In a reimagined 1590, society is a matriarchy in which Baptista Minola is seeking to sell off her son Katherine to the highest bidder, sparking an explosive battle of the sexes in an electrically charged love story. Shakespeare’s fierce comedy of gender and materialism is turned on its head to offer a fresh perspective on its portrayal of hierarchy and power. The production is directed by Justin Audibert, currently artistic director of London's Unicorn Theatre. WhatsOnStage declared it ‘Beautiful…revelatory…wonderful … Thrillingly delivered by a wonderful ensemble cast.’ (★★★★)
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