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David's Review Corner - June 2005

WAGNER: Tristan und Isolde. Wolfgang Millgram (Tristan), Hedwig Fassbender (Isolde), Lennart Forsen (King Mark), Gunnar Lundberg (Kurwenal), Magnus Kyhle (Melot), Martina Dike (Brangaene), Ulrik Qvale (Shepherd/Sailor), John Erik Eleby (Steersman), Royal Swedish Opera Male Chorus, Royal Swedish Opera Orchestra, Leif Segerstam (conductor). Naxos 8.660152-54 (3CDs). (212' 09").

In Leif Segerstam we have an outstanding Wagnerian at the helm of Naxos's new recording of Tristan und Isolde. He moves the opera at an ideal pace, never indulging the second act love scene with slow tempos, while at the same time resisting the temptation of overheating the score too early in the first act. He has a very fine orchestra and chorus at his disposal, and it is within this framework that his solo singers create credible characters. The opera has been remarkably fortunate on disc, but whereas in other recordings we would be discussing individual performances, we take this performance as an overall experience to which each singer has contributed. In this context Hedwig Fassbender's impassioned Isolde, a singer whose mezzo range is impressive, does have an overwhelming a desire to saturate the big climatic moments. Yet in the quiet passages, when whispering her desire to be at one with Tristan, her voice is meltingly beautiful. Wolfgang Millgram vocally restrains himself so that Tristan's final act is laden with remorse and sadness, which he does with considerable power and conviction. For me the highlight of the whole performance comes with the arrival of Isolde at Tristan's final resting place as Gunnar Lundberg's superb Kurwenal goes off to seek revenge on those responsible for his master's death. It is a chilling and poignant moment and the finest I have heard on disc. I much enjoyed Lennart Forsen dignified King Mark with Martina Dike as a touching if at times reticent Brangaene. I get the feeling that Isolde's final Liebestod was recorded at a different time to the rest of the opera, but the engineers have balanced the forces immaculately, employing some staging effects to capture the action without using the effects that were at one time in vogue

MILHAUD: Le Creation du Monde, Op.81a. Le Boeuf sur le toit, Op.58. L'homme et son desir, Op. 48. Suite provencale, Op.152d. Tomoko Makuuchi (soprano), Jian Zhao (mezzo-soprano), Mathias Vidal (tenor), Bernard Deletre (bass), Orchestra National de Lille-Region Nord/Pas-de Calais, Jean-Claude Casadesus (conductor). Naxos 8.557287. (68' 38").

Jean-Claude Casadesus creates the world at an uncommonly spacious pace, the jazz aspect of the ballet, Le Creation du Monde, having more French elan than American raunchiness, and that maybe just as Milhaud would have wished. It lends an inner clarity that is usually missing, while taking the music much closer to Stravinsky than I have ever previously heard. Very different, but I love it, the snazzy rhythm, that eventually accompanies the big clarinet solo, here given a Scott Joplin treatment. By contrast Casadesus whizzes through Le Boeuf sur le toit with gay abandon, somehow filling it with a myriad of details that are usually lost, the more bizarre orchestral colours making their full effect. After taking us on some musical trips abroad, Milhaud stylistically returns to his native land for the two remaining pieces, both created from a series of cameo pictures. The 1918 ballet, L'homme et son desir, with its haunting use of wordless voices, is a quite rarely played work receiving only its third recording. Suite Provencale is a robust eight movement score with some period pastiche, activity being its main feature. As with all the other works it receives a stunning performance from the Lille Orchestra, the whole release I would rate as the finest Milhaud disc I have encountered. The sound is immediate and makes for compulsive listening.

TALLIS: Spem in alium nunquam habui. Salva intermerata. Missa Salve intermerata. With all our heart. Discomfort them, O Lord. I call and cry to thee, O Lord. Oxford Camerata, Jeremy Summerly (conductor). Naxos 8.557770. (77' 17").

Oxford Camerata's recordings of 17th century choral music stand as my benchmark against which all others must be judged. Never dabbling in questionable 'period authenticity', but prompted by Jeremy Summerly's learned scholarship, they have provided us with clean-cut, perfectly balanced and beautifully sung performances, where intonation and impeccable ensemble are almost taken for granted. Now to mark the 500th anniversary of the composer's birth they have added to that catalogue the challenging 40-part Spem in alium, Thomas Tallis's astonishing score dating from the early 1570's. Summerly, avoiding spurious added dynamics which others have used, allowing the music to build of its own volition, the slowly moving harmonies wonderfully realised. Though this is complex in structure, the Salve intemereta - the most extensive single movement written in the 16th century - and the Missa Salve intermereta are equally challenging, though neither are particularly well known nor represented on disc. That Tallis lived through troubled times in England's religious history comes with a change from the use of the Catholic Latin to the English language for the last three works. Changing from their traditional recording home in Oxford to All Hallows in London's Gospel Oak has added weight to the Camerata's sound with some loss of detail, while it accentuates any 's' in the text.

SCHUBERT: String Quartet No. 15 in G major, D887. Five German Dances with seven trios and coda, D90. Kodaly Quartet. Naxos 8.557125. (59' 34").

I think we have come to the end of the Kodaly's cycle of Schubert's string quartets, a series marked by the uncomplicated approach that has communicated the composer's thoughts and wishes to the listener with the minimum intervention from the performers. Tempos have always been well chosen; the fast movements urgent but never rushed, while the architecture of each work has been well thought through and meticulously executed. It is not an inconsiderable undertaking, and the Kodaly has spread it over a quite extended period. Though I have admired it throughout, they have kept the best to the end, with a gorgeous reading of the G major, Schubert's last completed quartet. They have concentrated on the eloquence and humanity of the music, with a gentle scherzo and an engaging finale. Equally the technical quality is unblemished throughout, and as the series has progressed the sound quality has also become more refined. The G major is a sizeable score and just leaves room for a gentle trot through the German Dances, a score that pre-empts the era of the dance in Vienna that came thirty years later. If you have the remainder of the series this disc is obligatory, and if you are just starting, then here you have an ideal introduction.

BLOCH:America. Suite Hebraique. Hagai Shaham (violin), Lucnica Chorus, Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra /Atlas Camerata Orchestra, Dalia Atlas (conductor). Naxos 8.557151. (62' 41").

Save for his impassioned work for cello and orchestra, Schelomo, the Swiss-born American composer, Ernest Bloch, was unable to keep a significant amount of his music in the mainstream international orchestral repertoire, though as a teacher he had much influence on the future composers in the States. America, his 'Epic Rhapsody for Orchestra', sets out to cover the history of the country in three extended movements, striving to combine popular folk tunes. It was a grand concept that makes for easy listening, arriving at some jazz inspired passages as the work reaches the 'present time', which is now, of course, history. Bloch was a Jew, and in his mid-career he became absorbed by the history of his religion, resulting in a number of works, Schelomo and the Suite hebraique, being the most universally known. Written for his seventieth birthday celebrations and scored for either solo violin or viola, it is today often heard with piano accompaniment, though the orchestra does add a desirable spectrum of colours. In three quite short movements, it receives an uncommonly fine account from Hagai Shaham, one of the most exciting violinists to emerge from Israel in recent years, the instrument singing happily above a suave backdrop. Dalia Atlas secures admirable playing throughout both works, the readings allowing the music to emerge at a natural gait. The recording is nicely balanced without drawing attention to itself.

BRITTEN: Occasional Overture, Op.38. Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge, Op. 10. Prelude and Fugue, Op.39. The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, Op.34. English Chamber Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra, Steuart Bedford (conductor). Naxos 8.557200. (59' 48").

Naxos was very shrewd in obtaining the superb collection of Benjamin Britten recordings built up by the Collins label. Steuart Bedford, the finest advocate of the music we have had since the composer's death, and in some cases surpassing the originator, was the inspired choice of conductor. In this instance the main competition comes from Naxos itself, the Bournemouth Sinfonietta's recording of the Variations being my favourite performance on disc. Much leaner in texture than the English Chamber Orchestra, particularly in the ECO's resonant acoustic, the music seems more urgent, more intense and at times more acerbic in the hands of the Sinfonietta. That performance comes as part of a programme of English String Music, and I guess this all-Britten disc may well be to many people's preference, particularly as it contains the seldom heard Occasional Overture together with another rarity, the Prelude and Fugue. Bedford also spares us that familiar mad dash through the finale of The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, the variations contained within the work here mixing virtuosity with clarity. The LSO's playing is very fine, the recording - which is very different to the Frank Bridge Variations - being both clean and highly detailed.

RHEINBERGER: Organ Concerto No.1 in F major, Op. 137. Organ Concerto No.2 in G minor, Op. 177. Paul Skevington (organ), The Amadeus Orchestra, Timothy Rowe (conductor). Naxos 8.557787. (52' 02").

Naxos is presently working its way through Joseph Rheinberger's extensive output of organ sonatas, the large-scale and overtly romantic pair of organ concertos composed in the midst of a very active life teaching the next generation of German composers. In layout they are traditional, the slow central Andantes surrounded by grandiose outer movements that make demands on the soloist's agility. They are rare on disc, this present release filling a gap with well-intentioned performances. Attractive works - I often feel the first movement of the second concerto had come from Elgar - they are not too long to overstay their melodic invention. Organs are notoriously temperamental beasts, the Steiner-Reck instrument at St. Luke's Catholic Church in McLean, Virginia, seeming to have been in need of some fine-tuning in certain sectors to be perfectly in accord with the orchestra. The applause at the end of the first concerto discloses its 'live' concert origin, Paul Skevington's playing in both works being commendably accurate, with Timothy Rowe bringing excellent rapport between soloist and accompaniment. The engineers have achieved a true balance between the forces, while maintaining the impressive weight of the organ.

Two Pieces for Small Orchestra. Toccata for violin and Player Piano. Prelude and Blues. Study No.15. Tango?. Sonatina for Piano. Trio Movement. String Quartet No.1. Continuum. Naxos 8.559196. (44' 41").

Conlon Nancarrow was born in Arkansas in 1912, and after study at the Cincinnati Conservatoire became a private pupil of Piston and Sessions. Having fought in the Spanish Civil War, he settled in Mexico, becoming a highly progressive composer. His realisation that the piano player offered potential, for example in performing music faster than was humanly possible, resulted in a specially adapted instrument being constructed that allowed him to compose directly onto the piano roll. An example of his work comes in the short Toccata composed in 1935. Though at times his music seems to have lost all sense and reason, a good example being the Study No.15, a piece lasting just over a minute yet requiring a fabulous technique from the soloist. Those demands continue in a Piano Sonatina for four hands, the rhythmic complexity seeming at times about to burst into a popular song before diving back into its dense texture. Nancarrow is a musical 'one off' unlike anything you will have heard elsewhere. If you were just coming to his music, I would suggest you start at the end of the disc with the second of the Pieces for Small Orchestra, where at least you will have a feeling of familiarity to take you into his unique and absorbing world. Continuum continues their invaluable work for 20th century American music, Cheryl Seltzer and Joel Sachs' piano playing rather mind-blowing in the Sonatina. Very good sound quality.

KIRCHNER: In my April review of Continuum's recording of Kirchner's chamber music I commented: "Continuum's piano trio give a highly detailed account of a fiendishly difficult work, with Garrick Ohlsson's performance of the Piano Sonata capturing the density of the score with superb adroitness". I am informed the information provided to me with my review copy was incorrect, the excellent pianist being Cheryl Seltzer.

BOLCOM: You cannot have me now. Night, make my day. Digital wonderwatch. My father the gangster. Last Days. Song Dances Nos. 1 - 11. I will breathe - Pity me not. He had shag hair. The crazy woman. Just once. Never more. The sage. Oh to be a dragon. The bustle in a house. I saw eternity. Night practice. The fish. Costa del nowhere. Table. Mary. River song. Messing About. Rats song. When we built the church. Carole Farley (soprano), William Bolcom (piano). Naxos 8.559249. (63' 40").

Having survived a minor heart attack with the disc's opening scream, I enjoyed this much more than the recent Bolcom releases that appeared on Naxos. The thirty-four tracks cover a wide range of cabaret-style songs, many of them funny on the surface though thought-provoking when you delve below. Others are just meant to please in every way, the songs well contrasted and some extremely short. William Bolcom's student days were spent in Paris with Milhaud and Messiaen as his mentors, and while teaching in a number of American universities, including New York and Washington, he has composed a substantial catalogue of works covering a broad spectrum of genres. In Carole Farley he has a singer with a very outgoing musical personality, her colourful approach to these songs creating the atmosphere the words impart. Bolcom is her expert partner, and if the recording engineers have given the singer a very forward balance, it does help in the clarity of the words. Still, I hope the enclosed booklet - which I have not yet seen - includes the text as some of it whizzes by very quickly. Highly recommended.

PENNY MERRIMENTS: Street Songs of 17th Century England. Lucie Skeaping (soprano), Douglas Wootton (tenor), Richard Wistreich (bass-baritone), The City Waites. Naxos 8.557672. (70' 23").

City Waites date from England in the 15th century, the singers and instrumentalists having civic duties, but were allowed to augment their income as street musicians. In the following three centuries they became more sophisticated and were playing a diverse range of instruments. The early 19th century saw an end to their usefulness in the civic realm, and today they exist in historic English cities bringing a new lease of life to Early Music. How well the modern equivalents reflect the original holders of the title we shall never know, the repertoire of today's Waites largely a repertoire of bawdy and suggestive lyrics, with a few love songs thrown in for good measure. The disc's contents would have been the 'pop' songs of the era, the eighteen tracks with such titles as The Country Lass, The Seven Merry Wives of London, Good Advice to Bachelors how to court and The Female Captain, giving you the general gist of the disc's contents. The most successful performers use a rustic quality, singing out of tune seemingly a valued prerequisite. The lead vocalist is allowed greater refinement, Lucie Skeaping being an outstanding and well-known performer in this period of music, while The City Waites are presently much in demand, particularly over the Christmas period. Certainly unusual.

ZEMLINSKY: Landliche Tanze, Op.1. Albumblatt. Fantasien uber Gedichte von Richard Dehmel, Op.9. Vier Balladen. Menuett (from Das glaserne Herz). Skizze. Ein Lichstrahl. Silke Avenhaus (piano). Naxos 8.557331. (63' 24").

Before receiving this disc I cannot recall hearing a note of Alexander von Zemlinsky's solo piano music, and currently there is only one other recording in the CD catalogue. He shared a busy career between conducting and composing, his 1871 date of birth placing him in that period of rapid change in compositional style and technique. Yet when all around him was changing he remained wedded to tonal music written in a late romantic style and which ran much the same course as Richard Strauss, opera and symphonic works forming the larger part of his output. His piano pieces fall very pleasingly on the ear, being as undemanding on the performer as they are on the listener. Landliche Tanze is a group of twelve cameo pictures, the Fantasien more weighty and imposing. Of the unpublished scores Ein Lichstrahl is by far the most extensive piece, its content being of strong and forthright. Silke Avenhaus is a most sympathetic advocate, ideally shaping each piece, and allowing the music to speak for itself. A neutral sound quality is ideal.

ROSSI: Toccata and Correnti Nos 1 - 10. Sergio Vartolo (harpsichord). Naxos 8.557321. (79' 28").

Our detailed knowledge of the early 17th century Italian composer, violinist and organist, Michelangelo Rossi, is sketchy and possibly inaccurate, but we do know that he became one of the leading figures in keyboard composition in his time. Not a great deal of music survived him, the Toccatas and Correnti being one of our few indications of his standing. Stylistically they were not revelatory and his melodic invention does not inspire exalted admiration, though his craftsmanship is impressive, and occasionally he produces a fiery Toccata. Try track 4 to see what I mean, while for one brief moment in the seventh Toccata the chromatic progressions show a composer who could produce music of distinctive and innovative form. The Correnti are in gentle dance nature, and very brief when compared with the more substantial nature of the Toccata. Though maybe historically incorrect, I cannot understand why Sergio Vartolo has not placed a Correnti between Toccatas, as performers at the time may well have done, to provide much needed contrast. His playing is accomplished; his instrument fulsome in tone; sound quality up front and punchy, and for a trip down an undiscovered musical road there is much to commend the disc.

INCE: Symphony No. 3, 'Siege of Vienna'. Symphony No. 4 'Sardis'. Domes. Prague Symphony Orchestra, Kamran Ince (conductor). Naxos 8.557588. (61' 07").

The two symphonies from the Turkish-American composer, Kamran Ince, do not meet the traditional concept of that title, both constructed from a series of tone poems, the war symphony of the Third divided into nine highly graphic pictures, while the Second is a travelogue depicting five differing scenes. In the context of 20th century music, the Third is very listener-friendly in its dramatic content, the battle music captured with considerable impact, the percussion creating many startling effects. Its style freely mixes tonality with atonality, dissonance used for conflict, with melody inserted to provide a relaxation from the noise of combat. Of the two works it is the one that more readily grips attention, the Fourth often in accord with a Hollywood film soundtrack as the opening river music speaks in a very direct musical language. There are extended passages of quiet music, so that if you have set your volume control for the loud moments, the dynamic range brings these down to a whisper. The modernity of Ince's music is here more apparent, though if you strip away decibels we are left with similar works. Certainly Ince is among composers trying to forge links with disaffected audiences, and whether he or the ivory tower brigade will prevail I will not live long enough to find out. The Prague Symphony meets this very demanding music with the apparent familiarity that new music requires, and with the composer conducting we take the performances as 'authentic'. Highly charged sound quality.

BUXTEHUDE: Praeludium in D minor, BuxWV 140. Nun bitten wir den heiligen Geist, BuxWV 208. Komm, heiliger Geist, Herre Gott, BuxWV 200. Herr Jesu Christ, ich weiss gar wohl, BuxWV 193. Canzonetta in G, BuxWV 171. Praeludium in E major, BuxWV 141. Ach Gott und Herr, (2 var.), BuxWV 177. Danket dem Herren, (3 var.), BuxWV 181. Canzonetta in D minor, BuxWV 168. Praeludium in E minor, BuxWV 143. Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ, BuxWV 189. Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BuxWV 211. Puer natus in Bethlehem, BuxWV 217. Canzonetta in E minor, BuxWV 169. Lobt Gott, ihr Christen allzugleich, BuxWV 202. Es spricht der unweisen Mund wohl, BuxWV 187. Toccata in D minor, BuxWV 155.

Craig Cramer (organ). Naxos 8.557195. (64' 07").

The young Johann Sebastian Bach walking 200 miles just hear the great German organist, Dietrich Buxtehude, was a story that has proved to be pure myth, but it points to the veneration in which he was held, for the story was believed for many years. He wasn't German but probably came from Denmark, eventually gaining himself the prime appointment of organist in Lubeck. From there he exercised great power on the direction that composition in Germany was taking, particularly in the field of church music. He did not underestimate the responsibility this placed on his shoulders, and set about enhancing the quality of keyboard playing and composition. Naxos is undertaking a massive reappraisal of his music in many genres, this being the fourth volume of his solo organ works. He certainly was no musical prude, his Praeludium that opens the disc being a big and bold score, while the Toccata in D minor is everything we look for in Bach's popular works. There are gorgeous moments among the remaining eighteen tracks, the quiet repose of Herr Jesu Christ, ich weiss gar wohl and the rhythmically attractive Praeludium in E major being outstanding tracks, but I confess I am not always persuaded of the quality of Buxtehude's shorter pieces. I admired Julia Brown's earlier release in the series (8.555775), and I would start my Buxtehude collection there. Craig Cramer at the Gottfried and Mary Fuchs organ, at the Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington, pays respectful homage, his registrations nice, the quicker moments showing admirable dexterity of feet and hands. Sound quality is good.

BERKELEY: Sonatina for Violin and Piano, Op. 17. Five Short Pieces for Piano, Op. 4. Andantino for Cello and Piano, Op. 21, No. 2a. Three Pieces for Clarinet Solo. Mazurka for Piano, Op. 101b. Duo for Cello and Piano, Op. 81, No. 1. Six Preludes for Piano, Op. 23. Concertino for Flute, Violin, Cello and Piano, Op. 49. Schirmer Ensemble. Naxos 8.557324. (61' 34").

Lennox Berkeley never courted public favour, ploughing his own lone furrow that, even in his native England, has left his music on the periphery of the repertoire. Born into an aristocratic and wealthy family in 1903, Ravel encouraging the young man to study with Nadia Boulenger, and though he later destroyed all his scores from that period, his time in France removed all traces of Englishness from his music. He went on to compose a vast amount, his financial independence probably taking away that desire and necessity to seek the performances that would have established him as a major composer. He was a fine craftsman who could display both elegance and a ready wit, his writing taking him into every genre of music, including scores for radio drama and the cinema. Most of the pieces on this disc come from the 1930's and 40's and make no demand on the listener, the melodic invention quite charming and never provocative. Try track four as a sampler, the third of the Five Short Pieces for Piano, or the slightly quirky Mazurka on track 13. I suppose the Schirmer Ensemble had experienced little of Berkeley before the recording, the string intonation just a bit questionable, while the recorded balance between tracks differs markedly. Still at this low price do buy the disc as a nice friendly way to encounter Berkeley's music.

OTHMAYR/OSIANDER: Bicinium and Choral ’Komm, Heiliger Geist, Herre Gott’. Mass for Ascension - Introitus: Viri Galilei. KOTTER: Fantasia in C. Mass for the Holy Lance and the Nails. BRUMANN: Carmen in G. Mass for Saint Deocarus. SENFL: Lied ’Ewiger Gott’. Mass for Saint Sebaldus. ISAAC: Ricercare in D minor. Mass for Saint Monica - Offertorium: Jesu transfixi vulnera. PAUMANN: Kyrie Angelicum. Mass for Saint Martha. SCHLICK: Maria zart, von edler Art. Mass for Saint Lawrence - Introitus: Confessio et pulchritudo in conspectu eius. FINCK: Ich wird erlost. Bells of the Church of St. Lorenz, Matthias Ank (organ), Schola Hungarica, Laszlo Gobszay / Janka Szendrei (conductors). Naxos 8.557412. (70' 51"). 

German Medieval Chant taken from 'The Geese Book', a 500-year-old liturgical manuscript once used in Nuremberg, its name taken from the book's whimsical drawing of a choir of geese directed by a wolf. The bulk of the disc is given to chants used on feast days at Nuremberg's Church of St Lorenz, many apparently in premiere recordings. This is also a first time I have encountered any of the pieces, but I don't think organs of that period could have supplied Matthias Ank's grandiose opening Bicinium and Choral. Putting these doubts behind me, I thoroughly enjoyed the disc, the extremely youthful sounding singers of Schola Hungarica having a nice open texture, tempos always pushed along to obviate that stodgy feel we often have in Medieval Chant. The undoubted highlight, and the most extensive music, comes from Conrad Paumann who lived during the early 15th century. Ank's short solos which punctuate each chant are well and nimbly played, the engineers creating a church acoustic without that excess of reverberation most feel necessary on such occasions. Maybe putting the bells of the church on the last track was over-gilding the lily.

GOUNOD: Faust. Jussi Bjorling (Faust), Dorothy Kirsten (Marguerite), Cesare Siepi (Mephistopheles), Frank Guarrera (Valentin), Lawrence Davidson (Wagner), Anne Bollinger (Siebel), Thelma Votipka (Marthe), Metropolitan Orchestra and Chorus, Fausto Cleva (conductor). Naxos Historical 8.111083-85 (3CDs). (204' 39").

Interest in this broadcast from New York's Metropolitan Opera in December 1950 comes in Jussi Bjorling's elegant account of Faust and Fausto Cleva's highly charged conducting of the score. This is not a pretty version, Cleva sees to that, instilling as much drama as the music can reasonably stand, the ballet scene hurtled into with demonic force that must have left the orchestra breathless. Maybe Bjorling is not a natural French-sounding tenor, but with that liquid voice and easy legato the passages high in the voice are encompassed with ease, while his characterisation is largely that of a virtuous person caught in Mephistopheles trap. Siepi is a predictable villain in a big and well-focused voice, Kirsten less of the innocent girl than we normally hear as Marguerite. The remaining members of the cast are more than adequate, and the recording - which has been available elsewhere for some time - starts with very poor sound in the overture but improves later and is acceptable for its age. Naxos has added as a major bonus a Bjorling opera recital recorded in Hollywood in 1949, and Swedish songs broadcast from Stockholm in 1952. Both essential for the tenor's many fans.

CASADESUS: Viola Concerto in B minor in the Style of Handel. WALTON: Viola Concerto in A minor. BERLIOZ: Harold in Italy, Op. 16. William Primrose (viola), RCA Victor Orchestra, Frieder Weissmann (conductor); Philharmonia Orchestra, William Walton (conductor); Boston Symphony Orchestra, Serge Koussevitzky (conductor). Naxos Historical 8.110316. (79' 41").

William Primrose was regarded as the world's leading exponent of the viola in the middle part of the 20th century, having changed from his studies as a violinist at the late age of 24. Born in Scotland he made his career largely in the United States, having been chosen by Toscanini as principal viola of the NBC Symphony in 1937. His departure from there in 1942 marked the beginning of a highly successful career as a soloist. He played an instrument of modest size that gave him a sweet tone, but removed that 'woody' sound which has returned to favour in recent times, and is really a prerequisite for a successful account of the Walton concerto. Many critics wrote off Primrose's version at the time of issue in favour of the earlier recording conducted by the composer with Frederick Riddle as soloist, a version that many still consider the most desirable. That may have been cruel on Primrose's elegant playing which was rather put to use in the wrong musical surroundings. The 1944 sessions for Harold in Italy was the work's first studio recording, and is still regarded as unsurpassed. At his disposal Koussevitzky had a fabulous orchestra, Primrose given a quite forward role, characterising Harold as a rather pensive character. I cannot think of many kind words for Henri Casadesus's Viola Concerto, which is an overblown Handel pastiche. The transfers are as good as we can expect, though they mostly started life without any particular claim of excellence. The Walton from 1946 is rather tight and insipid for the orchestra, the Berlioz congested in loud passages, though it improves in the finale which is whipped up into a frenzy. 

BEETHOVEN: Violin Sonata No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 12 No. 3. FRANCK: Violin Sonata in A major for violin and piano. LEKEU: Violin Sonata in G major for violin and piano. Yehudi Menuhin (violin), Hephzibah Menuhin (piano). Naxos Historical 8.110989. (79' 28").

The five years that ended the 1930's can be viewed as a golden age in the musical relationship between the Yehudi and his sister Hephzibah. It has often been said that he was the dominant personality, but here that is not always apparent. The Beethoven is purposeful and often quite heavyweight in design and performance, Yehudi at times using slides that are out of character. Hephzibah's nimble playing tempts her to rush headlong into running passages, and after the quiet repose of their slow movement, the Rondo finale is never short of urgency, the piano often a fraction ahead of the violin. By contrast it is Yehudi who presses forward in the Franck, Hephzibah's approach being French influenced with phrasing that is very free. Whether you enjoy the many slides around the violin and the heavy vibrato is a matter of taste, but there is a strong sense of affection towards the music, passion almost boiling over in the second movement, but eventually throttling back to a unhurried final Allegretto. Lekeu's Sonata is the longest work on the disc, the score suiting Yehudi's intense approach, and I doubt that anyone could do more for the music. I do admire the composer's musicianship, but the sonata passes me by without making any impression. The Naxos sound people have made a first class restoration.

DEBUSSY: En sourdine. RONALD: Down in the Forest. White Sea Mist. O Lovely Night. HAHN: D’une prison. MOORE: Believe Me, If All Those Endearing Young Charms. VERDI: Otello - Piangea cantando nell’erma landa (Willow Song); Ave Maria, piena di grazia, Act 4. PUCCINI: La Boheme - Mi chiamano Mimi, Act 1. Donde lieta uscě al tuo grido d’amore, Act 3 (2 recordings). MILLER: Ye Banks and Braes o’ Bonnie Doon. VERDI: La Traviata - Ah fors’ e lui… Follie, follie! Sempre libera, Act 1. BISHOP: Lo! Here the Gentle Lark. MOZART: Le nozze di Figaro -Voi che sapete, Act 1. ARDITI: Se saran rose. GOUNOD: Faust - Ah! Je ris de me voir si belle (Jewel Song), Act 3. HANDEL: Sweet Bird. DONIZETTI: Lucia di Lammermoor - Ardon gl’incensi (Mad Scene), Act 3. MASSENET: Don Cesar de Bazan - A Seville, belles Senoras (Sevillana). THOMAS: Hamlet - Des larmes de la nuit (Mad Scene), Act 4. Nellie Melba (soprano). Naxos Historical 8.110335. (74' 31").

Oh dear, here I go again in my small minority wondering why such an aura surrounds this greatly admired and much loved Australian soprano. It is the second volume in Melba's 'Complete American Recordings', which mixes arias and songs mainly in the field of a lyric soprano, her forays into the coloratura range being mercifully few. What I find difficult to take is her often-vague intonation, and her hit and miss attack on high notes. Of course we are here dealing with primitive sound that would not have helped, the dynamic range compressed, and little favours are imparted to the apparent beauty of her voice. Her Desdemona from Verdi's Otello is pleasurable and I do like her Mimi, a role that seems suited to her voice. Coming from the early days of sound recording the orchestral quality was just a dim representation, though somewhat more likeable than the sound of the piano. If in musical circles her opera performances won universal praise, it was in the field of ballads that she became a household name. So with obvious relish she sings Ye Banks and Braes and Down in the Forest, the CD containing her famous party-pieces Lo! Here the Gentle Lark and Sweet Bird. Such venerable discs cannot have escaped the wear and tear to which they have been subjected, but the engineers have taken a path that minimises the resulting imperfections while retaining the full sound range of the originals.

KLEBE: Violin Sonatas Op.8 No.1; Op. 14 No.1; Op.20 No.2; Op. 66 No.2; Capriccio, Op.128. Fantasia Incisiana, Op.137. Eckhard Fischer (violin), Christian Kohn (piano). Marco Polo 8.225304. (78' 21").

Why didn't I immediately enjoy the disc of Giselher Klebe's music I reviewed last September on Marco Polo? Here I love every minute of the opening unaccompanied Violin Sonata, its brittle impact and vivid sonorities much to my taste. I had learned from the notes with the previous release that Klebe has passed through a number of phrases, starting as the darling of the avant-garde in the early 1950's to a more conciliatory style of listener-friendliness in recent times. That statement is turned upside down as this enjoyable sonata dates from 1950. Then I reached opus 14 for violin and piano, composed two years later, and I found the disjointed music pretty tough going. Born in Germany in 1925, Klebe was a one-time Webern advocate, his music often linked with 12-note serialism. Those facts we hear in opus 20, a score that has brevity to recommend it, while opus 66, composed in 1972, returns to a semblance of melodic invention, the finale spiced with unusual sonorities. Capriccio is a mix of light and darkness in a long opening movement, the second concluding in a state of excitement. Fantasia dates from 2001 - in six movements and the longest work on the disc - and seems to mix all that I enjoy with so much I don't understand, the highly demanding piano part as challenging as that for the violin. Klebe is to me an enigma, but if you are curious, and I hope you are, then the playing appears absolutely superb, Fischer diving around the instrument with considerable agility and technical brilliance. In Kohn he has a dedicated Klebe advocate, while the sound quality as good as you will hear.


Each month I will be reviewing two discs from the large catalogue of Chinese music that is available wherever you find Naxos and Marco Polo discs. In the Western world you may have to place an order with your retailer.

TRAD: Happy Spring Evening (arr. Wen-ping). Ambush on All Sides (arr. Guo-tai). Frontier Song. Deep Night (arr. Xiao-gu). YAN-JIN (arr. Wen-ping): Great Waves Sweeping Away Sand. HUI-RAN (arr. Wen-ping): Dance of the Yi Tribe. Lam Fung (pipa), Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra, Henry Shek (conductor). Marco Polo 8.225905. (47' 49").

A disc of music to display the virtuosity of the distinguished pipa master, Lam Fung, an instrument, for those just coming to Chinese music, that is of the family of lutes, though much larger than the Western instrument, and played in a vertical position. It has much the same range as the lute, though the tonal quality comes somewhere between the lute and the Russian balalaika. From the graphic titles you will realise this is music of pictures, though the sounds are not always those that we expect, Great Waves Sweeping Away Sand, being a gentle piece without a great wave in sight. My favourite track is one that crops up so often on Chinese discs, the Dance of the Yi Tribe, a joyful score of pleasurable content, while Deep Night is a rhythmically strong piece that would certainly keep you awake. Throughout you admire the brilliance of Fung, his agility and ability to draw so many sounds from the instrument always fascinating to the ear. The pipa does not have a massive tone, and you feel Shek is keeping the orchestral weight in check.

CI-WEN (arr. Zhong): Song of Chu. JIAN-GO (arr. Ai-guo): Kunqu Melody. TRAD (arr.Aiguo): Parting from Friends. HONG-DE/TIAN-QUAN (arr. You-dao): A Soaring Phoenix. YANG/CHEN: The Reservoir attracts a Golden Phoenix. HAI-DENG (arr. Jia-qing): Shanxi Tune. YOU: Joyful Water-Sprinkling Festival. JIANG/SHAN-PING: Barcarolle on the Weishan Lake. TRAD: Southerly Breeze. Zhaojun's Lament. Chen Jin-long (xun), Xu Chao-ming (sheng), Yu Xun-fa (Xiao), Shanghai Virtuosi, Xia Fei-yun (conductor). Marco Polo 8.828017. (53' 39").

At times I feel Chinese music has been so anxious to embrace Western culture that we are in danger - on disc at least - of drawing away from their traditional sounds. Here I am pleased to think that I am hearing something a little less influenced by outside sources. True the sheng solo (the Chinese reed mouth organ) in A Soaring Phoenix sounds to be of Russian origin, but I am constantly fascinated by the xun, the Chinese clay globular flute, that opens the disc. It rustic flute-like quality produces a most pleasing sound, though I don't find the promised battle described in the story of Song Of Chu. The sheng can often sound similar to the harmonica, sharing most of the qualities and technical devices. In that respect the pieces allow it to go through the gamut of sonorities with which we are more familiar, and again you would hardly expect a Barcarolle to be the spiky, jagged and rhythmically aggressive piece that is described in the booklet as 'a lyric piece'. The two concluding tracks Southerly Breeze and Zhaojun's Lament are played by the xiao, an end blown flute, the style and content of the music more in line with our thoughts of Eastern origin. The accompaniments are slight, often by just one instrument, and the recording has a nice neutral quality.

Classical Music Reviews and Classical Music Write-ups–

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