CDs / DVDs July 2018

James MacMillan: String Quartets
Royal String Quartet

If you do not already know these works may I suggest you approach them in reverse order? String Quartet No3 is the most abstract and, while deeply introspective, the most immediate and moving. The final movement, marked patiently and painfully slow, winds its way ever upwards and is both transparent and transcendent. The more complex and insistent first quartet entitled Visions of a November Spring shows the composer wrestling with new ideas and we seem to be in the midst of his battles. The second quartet, Why is this night different? is more immediate but still demanding.

However there is much to engage with here and will repay the efforts made.

Rachmaninov: Etudes Tableaux
Stephen Osbourne, piano

Two sets of nine Etudes Op 33 and 39 are recorded here complete and may be known to some listeners as five of them were orchestrated by Respighi. Though Rachmaninov provided programmatic notes for these they do not need descriptors to convince the listener, the range of moods and technical finesse being more than enough to engage the ear. I particularly enjoyed the final etudes of Op39 with the transition from the more refined No8 in D minor to the march of No9 in D major.

Schubert: Schwanengesang
Brahms: Acht Zigeunerlieder
Arranged for French horn and piano
Tim Thorpe, French horn; Christopher Williams, piano
NAXOS 8.573815

Much as I can appreciate the quality of musicianship here I do not warm to the arrangements themselves. Though the Brahms works better, the Schubert seems too extrovert and at times simply too loud for the score itself. A pity as the quality of playing is itself excellent.

Louis Spohr: Sonatas for harp and violin
Masumi Nagasawa, harp; Cecilia Bernardini, violin
BIS 2302

One of those unexpected delights – a disc full of lovely music, expertly played – and all totally unfamiliar.

Wagner: Tristan und Isolde
Bayreuth Festival 1958, Wolfgang Sawallisch
ORFEO C 951183D

There are of course large number of recordings of Tristan but this has a great deal to recommend it. I have a personal interest as we saw Wieland’s production in Bayreuth in 1967 with almost the same cast. Windgassen and Nilsson are here in ecstatic form and were never better vocally. There are few singers today who can come anywhere near their emotional power and intensity while also providing such musical splendour. Wolfgang Sawallisch is at the height of his power here in the Bayreuth pit, and the sweep of the drama is hedonistic in its intensity.

A Courtly Garland
Robert Farley, baroque trumpet, Orpheus Britannicus, Andrew Arthur

The trumpet is essentially a military instrument but within the baroque period became incorporated into more refined and courtly compositions. This engaging recording traces that history with a large number of compositions, most of them unknown to me, though Frescobaldi and Corelli will ring more familiar bells. Orpheus Britannicus provide a wide range of accompaniment to Robert Farley’s bright baroque trumpet.

Beethoven: Three Piano Trios Op1
Trio Goya

I was immediately struck by the sound of the fortepiano which dramatically changes the impact and balance of these works – the three Trios Op1 – and rightly so for these are very early works by Beethoven. Though not his first compositions – Opus numbers are never terribly reliable – they do date from his early years in Bonn c1794 and are beautifully crafted. Violin and piano carry most of the interest as the cello part had yet to reach the prominence it does in subsequent works. An engaging and convincing recording.

Haydn: Piano Sonatas Vol7
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet

Some recording labels are doing a sterling job in producing repertory which lies outside the more familiar simply by issuing volume after volume for composers who produced reams of work within the same field. Though this may appeal more to the overt specialist it is pleasing to find new works which are just as musically enhancing as others within the genre. This is certainly true of this seventh volume of Haydn sonatas. Did he ever write a dull note? If he did it is certainly not here, and the five sonatas included are as convincing as any which have gone before, and splendidly recorded.

Richard Rodney Bennett Vol2
Howard McGill, saxophone, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, John Wilson

This recording gets easier on the ear as it proceeds. Though known for his jazz compositions and influence, Rodney Bennett’s Concert for Stan Getz, written in 1990, is a modernist composition with jazz overtones rather than a jazz work in its own right. Perhaps the most immediate works here are the Serenade and the 1995 Partita which brings the recording to a graceful conclusion.

The Gates of Vienna; Baroque organ music from the Hapsburg Empire
Robert James Stove

The Nicholson organ now in the Catholic Church in Mentone, Australia, has been finely restored and sounds splendid on this new recording. It would be worth adding to your collection for this alone, but Robert James Stove has managed to find a number of baroque works here recorded for the first time.

The instrument has a convincing range of voices, and the edge and attack are splendid throughout.

I particularly enjoyed the range of pieces from Chaumont’s Pieces d’Orgue¸ to the anonymous Alia Chorea. If Zach’s Prelude and Fugue in C minor brings a more sombre note, the brief Dance of Lazar Apor raises our spirits before the end.

Copies of the cd are available via the website

Puccini: La Fanciulla del West
Teatro di San Carlo, Jura Valcuha

This rather conventional production is nonetheless well sung and moves with some conviction, even if the sets are too big for the action within them. Emily Magee is a convincing Minnie and Claudio Sgura a totally convincing, swaggering, Jack Rance. Roberto Aronica sings well as Dick Johnson but his movement on stage is less than convincing given the heavy levels of naturalism required by the director Hugo de Ana.

Rossini: Le Comte Ory
Malmo Opera, Tobias Ringborg
NAXOS 2.110388

This production from Malmo Opera creates a fantasy world within which the the comedy unfolds and is amusing as well as musically pleasing throughout. Leonardo Ferrando is a sleek Ory but it is the chorus work and the splendid orchestral playing which keeps Linda Mallik’s production alive to the last note.



Ariadne auf Naxos

Opera Holland Park

Antony McDonald, director of this production, puts a modern, mildly feminist spin on Richard Strauss’s opera-within-an-opera and it responds rather well. The thirty five minute prologue, which forms the first half, gives us a female composer (Julia Sporsen) in jeans falling in love with Zebinetta (Jennifer France) when the latter arrives with her Burlesque troupe and threatens the opera. Veteran actor, Eleanor Bron, meanwhile, makes a cameo appearance as the party planner.

The point, of course, is an examination of high art and its relationship with “popular” art. The incongruous Gilbertian compromise that the opera company and the burlesque troop will stage a show about Ariadne collaboratively is – in this production – suitably entertaining and witty. It also heightens the poignancy of the bereft Ariadne (Mardi Byers) whose lover, Theseus has abandoned her. I shall long treasure the silly dance with tricks by Zerbinetta and her troupe of four – to Strauss at his most tunefully spikey – as they try, and fail, to cheer up Ariadne.

Jennifer France is in her element as Zerbinetta and her show piece number – with Queen of the Night-like top notes and vocal acrobatics along with delicious comic timing, nippy dancing and lots of panache – gets her a well-deserved round of spontaneous applause. Mardi Byers delights as a velvety voiced, soulful and then joyful Ariadne and there’s lovely work from Kor-Jan Dusseljee as Bacchus who eventually sweeps her off her feet – their concluding duets are warmly balanced and theatrically satisfying.

It’s one of Strauss’s richest, and best orchestrated operatic scores and conductor Brad Cohen brings out the colour – even though from my seat I could hear more stage left percussion than I could horns who were on the other side.

Antony McDonald’s set is an ingenious device. It consists of three scruffy caravans – all with doors for exits and entrances and one which can be (and is) climbed on. These are the backstage areas for the visiting performers and they sit well against the elegant residual brick and stone work of the Holland Park house to suggest that a couple of troupes of performers have arrived at a stately home. In the second half, for the opera, the caravans are moved to the sides to make room for the dining table which forms the main set item for Ariadne but we never forget that this is a show within a show.

I’m less convinced by the rather clumsy device of doing the prologue in English and the opera in German. I suppose it stresses the idea that first these people are being themselves and then they’re acting but it felt very false and certainly confused several audience members who were seated near me.

Susan Elkin