CDs October 2020

Beethoven: Missa Solemnis
Hofkapelle & Kammerchor Stuttgart, Frieder Bernius
NAXOS NBD 0116V Blu-ray

Frieder Bernius is an idiosyncratic not to say meticulous conductor who prepares his musicians in a way few others I have come across would dare to do. He marks up the scores of each musician and singer individually and even rehearses with individual members of the choir. Internal balance and even the way each vowel is pronounced is crucial to him. The recording comes in two sections. The first, a film by Uli Aumuller, follows this process of preparation, while the second is the recording itself.

Given that there is such attention to detail and the use of original instruments is crucial, the only point at which I began to question the whole undertaking was the editing studio where they were able to nudge phrases, entries, even alter the character of a note to ensure it was exactly what the conductor wanted. This struck me as overkill for a performance which worked perfectly well without it. Live music sometimes has tiny mistakes  and is often the better for it.

RESONUS RES10265 72’33

This is a very rewarding disc, showcasing the diverse output of a composer I was unaware of. The CD consists of 7 sets of short song cycles, 25 songs in total, presented in clear recordings by male and female soloists with piano accompaniment. There is much variety in music and subject matter. Full texts and translations make this a recording to return to and listen in different ways. An interesting and welcome introduction to this project discusses the complexities of assessing the work of someone known to have at least been on friendly terms with Nazis. We need to have these discussions if we are to make sense of much of our artistic heritage and find ways to appreciate and enjoy what is good as well as not shying away from the darker aspects of the circumstances in which they were sometimes created.


NAXOS 8.573976.  79’26

Here are two new major works by Francis Pott in premiere recordings. The pairing makes for a very satisfying programme. At first light (2018) was commissioned as a memorial. It combines sung texts from a variety of sources – Christian and Jewish as well as words by Wendell Berry & Kahil Gilbran. Alongside the choir is the wordless but lyrical cello. Word (2012) was commissioned as part of the Merton Choirbook Project and is intended to “enable contemplation of the Gospel ‘s significance in our postmodern cultural epoch”. As in the previous CD the text of the booklet is well worth reading in order to more fully understand the thought behind the work. Texts here are from the prologue to John’s gospel together with poems by RS Thomas. The organ also plays a significant part.


CINQUECENTO Renaissance Vokal
HYPERION CDA68241 71’06

This disc presents Franco-Flemish music of the late 16th Century. The major work is complemented by the motet Rex Babylonis composed by Jacobus Vaet and published in 1568, from which Johannes de Cleve constructed his mass. Alongside this music are further shorter works by de Cleve. This recording gives a wonderful insight into the musical world of the chapels of the Habsburg chapels.


MARCO MOLASCHI, Angelo Amati organ(1843),
Chiesa di San Bassiano, Pizzighettone (Cremona)
TACTUS TC 800201 73’45

This is a very entertaining CD, perhaps not to everyone’s taste but featuring Marco Molaschi giving a very good account of Barbieri’s organ music. Writing during the 19th Century this music clearly reflects the influence of his interest in music for the theatre as well as for the church. The historic organ adds to the flavour of this recording.


TACTUS TC 900005 67’23

One of the many cultural tragedies of the rise of Nazism in the early 20th Century was the persecution of composers whose race or religion, ideas or philosophies did not fit with the leadership’s objectives. Restrictions and particular burdens were placed upon them. Works were suppressed and, in many cases, destroyed. Despite this, human resilience often triumphed, creativity flourished and many works were hidden, preserved and passed on. Releases such as this are to be encouraged and welcomed as a means of bringing this music to a wider audience and making the story of this human tragedy known. The orchestral music of the four composers represented here clearly show that this music was anything but degenerate.

SP 12/10/20


J S Bach; Goldberg Variations
Pavel Kolesnokov, piano

The Goldberg Variations work well on the piano and are here given a sympathetic and warm rendition by Pavel Kolesnikov.  The story behind the recording is as interesting as the disc itself. The work was not in the pianists repertoire until he was asked if he would perform it for a ballet version choreographed by Anne Teresa De Keersmacker – which needless to say he did. If this gives the rhythms an extra edge, we know why.


John Rutter: Anthems, Hymns & Gloria for Brass Band
Black Dyke Mills Band, Sheffield Philharmonic Choir, Nicholas Childs, Darius Battiwalla
NAXOS 8.574130

This is a very enjoyable arrangement of familiar works by John Rutter. The only dip comes with the Gloria which is an early work and does not have the spiritual and emotional integrity of the later hymns.


Piano Quintets by Frederic D’Erlanger and Thomas Dunhill
Goldner String Quartet, Piers Lane, piano

As so often with new releases, I knew nothing of either of these composers or their works before the cd arrived on my desk. The music is immediately engaging in a late romantic and at times comfortably English sense. Worth exploring.


Domenico Scarlatti: Complete Keyboard Sonatas Vol25
Pascal Pascaleff, piano
NAXOS 8.574146

Can you have too much of a good thing? Volume 25 of Scarlatti’s Keyboard Sonatas and there seems no end to the series. Engaging as the recording is, one would need to be a real enthusiast to differentiate between them. I assume there is a market here, if only for those who want complete sets of everything.


Sibelius: Kullervo
Minnesota Orchestra, YL Male Voice Choir, Lilli Paasikivi, Tommi Hakala, Osmo Vanska
BIS 2236

Having heard Osmo Vanska conduct Sibelius in Lahti some years ago during one of the Lahti Organ Festivals I was convinced then that he is one of our finest interpreters of the composer, and so it proves here. Drawing on Finnish singers and the Minnesota Orchestra this is a spirited recording made during live performances which helps to give is a strongly dramatic edge.


Franz Lehar: Cloclo
Lehar Festival Bad Ischl, Marius Burkert
CPO 777 708-2

Foer those of us besotted by The Merry Widow this recording has a lot going for it. Though relatively unknown, Cloclo has a generous amount of memorable melodies and Lehar seems deliberately to return to a lighter more engaging approach. A rarity but one which might be due for revival.


Shostakovich: Symphony No5
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Mariss Jansons

This is part of an ongoing series and very welcome it is. After the disastrous reception given to Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk Shostakovich needed a success, and this was it. For all its dark corners the work is deliberately accessible and so it proves to be in Mariss Jansons finely honed approach.


Richard Strauss: Tanzsuite; Divertimento
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Jun Markl
NAXOS 8.574217

Two suites based on works by Couperin. Strauss was commissioned to write a ballet score for the Vienna State Opera in 1919 and these divertimenti are drawn from the full score. Charming and undemanding, they are finely played by the New Zealand forces under Jun Markl.


Malcom Arnold: The Dancing Master
BBC Concert Orchestra, John Andrews

Not a work I had come across before, the opera was written in 1952 for television but considered too sexually explicit and so never performed at the time. It is difficult to see quite why today, and the music comes across with freshness and spirit. The score ranges from the sentimental to the acerbic, and all the better for it.


John Tavener: No Longer Mourn For Me
Steven Isserlis, cello, Philharmonia Orchestra, Omer Meir Wellber

I found much of this hard going. The opening and closing pieces, arranged by Steven Isserlis for eight cellos are easily accessible and engaging but the three central works are far more challenging and may upset the balance of the arrangements in the outer movements.

CDs / DVDs / Blue-ray September 2020

Puccini: Suor Angelica
Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Valerio Galli
DYNAMIC 57873 Blue-ray

This the third part of last year’s Florence production by Denis Krief, and certainly lives up to the promise of the splendid Il Tabarro and Gianni Schicchi. Unfortunately the opening is not very impressive. Though the stark setting works well, the large number of nuns, many of them not seeming to know what to do, look more like a G&S chorus than the sheltered but secretive body the music implies. However, once the narrative gets going it picks up very quickly. Maria Jose Siri is a totally convincing Angelica, a mixture of naivety and inner strength. Her scene with the icily vicious princess, wonderfully sung by Anna Maria Chiuri, is uncomfortably convincing. Left alone, Angelica is devastated by the news of the loss of her son, but realises, as he is in heaven so could she be. Her suicide quickly follows and for a moment she is torn by doubt that this might be a mortal sin but the final scenes seals this wonderfully. Where the ending can too often seem sentimental, here as she lies dying, a seven year old boy appears, unsmiling, but holding out his hand to her. She reaches out and the opera end. It is so simple yet so effective.

Juan Diego Florez: Mozart
Orchestra La Scintilla, Riccardo Minasi
C MAJOR 754904 Blue-ray

Juan Diego Florez gave this concert in the Cuvillies Theatre in Munich where the intimacy of the venue makes it seem like a concert for friends. Casually dressed, he needless to say sings an all Mozart programme magnificently. All the expected favourites are there, and the orchestra La Scintilla under Riccardo Minasi, playing original instruments, add a number of overtures to break up the arias. In most cases arias follow logically from the overture. The oddity is Figaro until one recalls there is not major tenor aria in Figaro. A highly enjoyable and often quite light-hearted occasion.


Henze:  Der Prinz von Homburg
Stuttgart Opera, Cornelius Meister
NAXOS NBD0115V Blue-ray

This 2019 production from Stuttgart, by Stephan Kimmig is in modern dress and uncomfortably relevant. With the rise of so many far-right groups, and the sense that law is something that can too easily be ignored if you have the power to do so, the parallels sit uncomfortably. That ostensibly it has a happy ending does not help the listener to reconcile himself with the reality of the world reflected in the opera as a whole. Cornelius Meister handles the large number of moods and changes of style in Henze’s score with skill and the large cast impress with their obvious understanding of a work which is rarely staged.

Beethoven: Variations
Angela Hewitt, piano

Is there anything Angela Hewitt can’t do? This is a fine collection of seven sets of variations by Beethoven ranging from the familiar sets on God save the King and Rule Britannia to Quant’e piu bello and Nel cor piu non mi sento neither of which I knew. If the more extended variations on Eroica form the heart of collections there is nothing either side to suggest the other works are lesser pieces.

Cesti: La Dori
Academia Bizantina, Ottavio Dantone
CPO 555 309-2

Cesti’s opera La Dori was a huge success when first staged in 1657, and had been seen in over 30 productions by 1689. Cesti’s innovation to the art form was the introduction and gradual shaping of the aria. Where most early operas relied on recitative or arioso, Cesti introduces arias which we would recognise as such today. While historically interesting, does it make this 2019 staging worth listening to? Yes certainly, particularly if you are familiar with Monteverdi and Cavalli to give you a starting point. If nothing else the score is engaging throughout.

Emilie Mayer: Symphonies 1 & 2
NDR Radiophilharmonie, Leo McFall
CPO 555 293-2

I knew nothing about Emilie Mayer before I listened to this new recording of her first two symphonies and was really delighted by them. While certainly late romantic there is no obvious comparison with other composers of the period. I must admit to indulging in their warmth and the sense that this is a genuine and quite distinctive voice yet firmly within the romantic framework which is so familiar. If, like me, you know nothing of her, then do give this a try.

Bach: Das Wohltemperierte Klavier – Vol2
Steven Devine, harpsichord

One of the troubles with Bach is that it is almost impossible to make a bad recording. Occasionally artists turn out dull performances but even this is rare. Steven Devine’s new recording of the second part of the Wohltemperierte Klavier is certainly as impressive as his finely crafted and often technically suave first set, and beyond that it is difficult to know what to add. My only real problem, these days, is that I have quite a large number of fine recordings of the Wohltemperierte Klavier  and I never know which to choose!

Niels Gade: Chamber Works Vol5
Ensemble MidtVest
CPO 555 199-2

This latest collection includes the Fantasy Pieces Op 43 for clarinet and piano, the string quartet Op63 in D major and the string quintet Op8 in E minor. The Fantasy Pieces date from 1864 and are elegantly effective. The often revised Quartet Op63 is a more substantial work whereas the earlier Op8, dating from the composer’s time in Leipzig, shows the continuing influence on him of national romanticism.

J S Bach:
Cello Suites – arranged for solo piano
Eleonor Bindman, piano
Cello Suites –vol2 – arranged for guitar
Jeffrey McFadden, guitar
NAXOS 8.573626

There is certainly an interesting comparison here. I had thoroughly enjoyed Jeffrey McFadden’s own arrangements of the first three suites and these are certainly as good. Knowing the originals very well and having quite a number of different versions, these  arrangements for guitar seem to move away very little from the heart of the originals. I can listen with as much ease as I do to them and every so often pick up a nuance which I had missed when heard on the cello.

Eleonor Bindman’s arrangements for piano are very different. One is immediately aware that there is little connection between the sound world of the cello (which the intimacy of the guitar can match) and that of the piano. While there is nothing obviously wrong with transcribing for the piano, the outcome is of an entirely different oral world which either appeals or does not. Much as I appreciate the skill of the performance this is not how I prefer to listen to the Cello Suites. I am sure others will disagree. I underlying reality is that Bach’s genius is never compromised.


CDs/DVDs August 2020

Puccini: Gianni Schicchi
Maggio Musicale Fiorentino
DYNAMIC 57874  Blue-ray

I have to state that we have just bought a Blue-ray player for the first time and I am staggered how much difference it makes both in HD picture quality and sound. This production comes from Florence last summer and is hard driven and totally convincing throughout. There is nothing sentimental about Francesca Longari’s Lauretta or her approach to O mio babbino caro  while Dave Monaco’s praise of Florence is spine-tingling. Bruno de Simone is a Gianni Schicchi of the old school, beautifully sung and hard as nails, which works superbly. I can’t recommend this too highly.


Dvorak: Rusalka
Glyndebourne Festival Opera

We saw Rusalka at Glyndebourne when it first opened and loved it. While it is certainly a magical production there is a nasty, destructive edge just below the surface. Melly Still manages to balance the very real fantasy of swimming mermaids, complete with prehensile tails, with the darker side of fairy life. Sally Matthews is a convincing Rusalka who ultimately loses everything, while her prince Evan Leroy Johnson, has no power against the evil swirling around him. Key to this is Patricia Bardon’s knife toting Jezibaba. Robin Ticciati manages equally to tread the fine line between a score which can seem romantically over-indulgent and the darker recesses of the sub-conscience. Good to have this available.

Handel/Mozart: Der Messias
Les Musiciens du Louvre, Marc Minkowski
Staged by Robert Wilson
UNITEL 803408

Once I have reminded myself that this is a Robert Wilson staging, everything slots into place. His totally idiosyncratic approach either works magnificently or it sends you screaming and running out of the room. I really enjoyed the Butterfly and Aida but hated the Turandot. But if he was waiting for the one work which would crown his brilliance so far this Messias is it. Staged using the Mozart version of Handel’s score, the music comes across swiftly and intelligently from all concerned. What is unexpected is the approach to the text. The work is sung in German, but the visual impact sweeps away any hints of Judeo-Christian spirituality  – or worse, the sort of sentimental religiosity of far too many Messiah’s I have sat through.

Image after image is breathtakingly beautiful, but please don’t ask questions. Why is the little girl dancing, why is the old man in fits of giggles, why is the tenor solo an aging song-and-dance man who winks at the audience when he leaves the stage? I have no idea – I only know it works.

Elena Tsallagova’s radiant singing of I know that my Redeemer Liveth is done from a gondola which slowly traverses the stage as she sings. There are many wonderful, mesmeric moments throughout the whole.

I was not expecting this and can’t recommend it too highly.

Donizetti: Don Pasquale
Wiener Staatsoper on tour, Hector Urbon
NAXOS 2.110659

In 1977 the Vienna State Opera took its company on tour. This charming production of Don Pasquale is sung in German and was recorded in the Volkshaus,  Murzzuschlag. It is a very small house compared with the main Opera in Vienna, but ideal for the intimacy of Donizetti’s comedy which comes across with crisp attention to details and much beautiful singing. Given that it is almost half a century old the quality of the recording is exceptionally impressive and needs no apologies.

Vaughan Williams: Symphony No 5
Finzi: Clarinet Concerto
Michael Collins, clarinet & conductor, Philharmonia Orchestra
BIS 2367

A wonderful combination of works which sit perfectly alongside each other. With Michael Collins both conductor and soloist in the Finzi Concerto there is a cohesion between the works which may be obvious intellectually but rarely comes across with such musical finesse. The symphony is superbly paced and the tone never really grows above the intimate, leading to the darker passages of concerto which are allowed to flower and work their poignant magic. Highly recommended.

Brahms; Cello Sonatas
Daniel Muller-Schott, cello; Francesco Piemontesi, piano
ORFEO C979201

There are three sonatas recorded here No1 in E minor Op38; D major sonata Op 78 and No2 in F major Op99. While enjoyable, these are highly serious works and need to be approached with a strong sense of their often hidden depths and beauties. Worth exploring and taking time to get to know.


Operatic Transcriptions
Marc-Andre Hamelin, piano

This is a highly entertaining collection of works – some by Liszt very familiar – but others by Sigismond Thalberg far less so. His Grande fantaisie sur des motifs to Don Pasquale is particularly appealing, with the melodies clearly recognisable, while the Fantaisie sur des themes de Moise is only unfamiliar because the opera itself is so rarely performed. Warmly recommended.

Busoni; Works for two pianos
Aldo Ciccolini, Aldo Orvieto and Marco Rapetti, pianos
NAXOS 8.574086

Busoni wrote a significant number of works for two pianos. They include arrangements of larger scale works by Mozart and  Schumann, with works by himself which often rely heavily stylistically on Bach.


Silvius Leopold Weiss; Works for Lute
Arranged for guitar Danijel Cerovic
NAXOS 8.574068

A delight; early lute music meticulously and lovingly arranged for guitar seemingly without any loss in the innate musicianship of the original. Mood changes impress by their subtlety and inner charm rather than any attempt to impress.


Oscar Straus: Piano Concerto
Oliver Triendi, Deutsche Radio Philharmonie, Ernst Theis
CPO 555 280-2

An odd coupling. The piano concert is conventional and to be honest very dull. The rest of the recording is exactly what one might expect of the composer of the Chocolate Soldier! The waltzes are charming but the Serenade has an unexpected beauty and lyricism which I really enjoyed.


CDs/DVDs July 2020

Verdi: Simon Boccanegra
Salzburg Festival, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Valery Gergiev
UNITEL 802608

A darkly effective modern-dress production by Andreas Kriegenburg brings out clearly the political undertones of the narrative as well as within Verdi’s score. The production sits uncomfortably somewhere between the fascist right and the communist left so that all we are really aware of is the possibility of corruption and the way it affects personal relationships. A fine approach which works well even if it is not a comfortable watch.


Mahler: Symphony No2 Resurrection
Munich Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel
UNITEL 802808

This live recording – and a splendid one it is with all the joy and enthusiasm Gustavo Dudamel brings to his music-making – was made in one of the strangest concert halls I have come across. The Palau de la Musica Catalana was completed in 1908 and is a cross between a vastly ornate Catholic cathedral and a greenhouse. The roof and side walls, all normally impenetrably dense, are here made of glass with the finest stained-glass panels alongside walls liberally decorated with mosaics and sculptures. It almost dwarfs Mahler’s score, though thankfully Dudamel’s wonderful ability to mould extensive passages into sinuous wholes, and superb playing from the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra go a long way to help. Given the strange design, the choir are floated way above the orchestra – rather like having them in the gallery of the RAH. It is a marvellous experience and comes across remarkably well here.


Puccini: Il Tabarro
Maggio Musicale, Valerio Galli

As I have noted often before I am a great enthusiast for Il Tabarro and this is one of the finest recordings musically I can recall. Angelo Villari’s heroic tenor as Luigi is magnificent and superbly partnered by Maria Jose Siri as Giorgietta and Franco Vassallo as Michele. Denis Krief’s design is obviously intended for all three parts of Puccini’s trilogy so is only partly successful and often lacks atmosphere where most needed. This said the music is so good it is easy to forgive the visual impact to be swept away by the drama.

There are a number of links on YouTube to Angelo Villari’s performances and they are all worth listening to even when the productions are somewhat dubious. His Nessun dorma is glorious.


Offenbach: Orpheus in the Underworld
Salzburg Festival, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Enrique Mazzola
UNITEL 803008

A strange somewhat frenetic approach to a work which can disappear if too heavily handled. The dialogue is spoken on stage by an actor taking all the parts while the characters mime to his voice. This has a strangely disconcerting effect, particularly on the DVD where the words are clearly not coming from the singer in close-up. The score is hard driven throughout and while some of the ideas work well – the dancing is amusing and the setting effective – the overall effect lacks subtlety and nuance which is surely the essence of Offenbach.


Opere della ‘Musica Degenerata’
Orchestra Abima, Civica Orchestra di Fiati G Verdi, Davide Casali
TACTUS TC 900005


Debussy: Claire de lune and other works
Ilia Kim, piano

A challenging collection which places very familiar pieces alongside those in which the composer seems to be moving way ahead into the twentieth century. The Deux Arabesques, Claire de lune and La Cathedrale engloutie need no introduction but I was struck by both the Soiree dans Grenade and Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest the latter of which moves us into highly emotive seemingly improvised passages. Throughout Ilia Kim brings a strenuous confidence to her playing which is entirely convincing.

Bach: Cello Suites 1
Jeffrey McFadden, guitar
NAXOS 8.573625

Cello Suites 1, 2 & 3 arranged for guitar and here played with obvious enthusiasm and delight. While not having the nuance of the original it certainly conveys the joy of the works themselves and is able to communicate the varying moods of the original.


CDs/DVDs June 2020

Bach: Cello Suites
Yo-Yo Ma, cello
CMAJOR 754408

Yo-Y o Ma was performing live at night in the open air theatre of Herodes Atticus in Athens last summer. I love the cello suites. They sit alongside the Art of Fugue as the greatest of all musical creations – and I know that is sticking my neck out – but this glorious performance seems to justify my faith. He brings a lifetime of experience and sensitivity to the works, maintaining their intimacy even within this vast arena, and not a note is out of place. If you don’t know the suites well just listen to the third which is so full of life and joy. A recording to treasure.


Puccini: Turandot
Teatro Real, Madrid, Nicola Luisotti

I suspect that director Robert Wilson has a marmite effect on most of us. You either love his approach or find it totally incomprehensible. The costumes here may be oriental but the total lack of any humanity means that any emotional impact can only ever come from the score. Fortunately the singers are strong and the conducting excellent. But yet, but yet, the singers line up and face the audience across the front of the stage, drifting position occasionally, but refusing to make any human contact with anyone else on stage and never, ever, making eye-contact. At the end, once Calaf has revealed his name, he disappears and Turandot is left isolated downstage while the chorus emote in silhouette behind her. Needless to say Liu dies standing up and nobody comes anywhere near her when she is being forced to speak. It is all very odd.

Landi: La Morte d’Orfeo
Dutch National Opera, Les Talents Lyriques, Christophe Rousset
NAXOS  2.110661

Stefano Landi is not a name even regular opera buffs are likely to have encountered on the stage yet this work, dating from 1619, is certainly worthy to set alongside the more popular works of Monteverdi and Cavalli. The opera takes up the story of Orpheus from the point Monteverdi leaves it and follows the composer through his various trials before his grizzly death and translation into a demi-god. The modern dress production by Pierre Audi is visually impressive and flows with ease, using a small cast, many of whom play a number of different parts. The orchestration is wonderfully effective in the hands of Les Talens Lyriques under Christophe Rousset.

Beethoven: Ruins of Athens
Czech Philharmonic Choir of Bruno, Cappella Aquileia, Marcus Bosch
CPO 777 634-2

This is an unusual collection of Beethoven’s choral settings, with the full score and spoken dialogue for the Ruins of Athens, together with Calm sea and prosperous voyage and the even rarer Opferlied. This latter work had occupied the composer for many years having started on it in 1794 and revised it continually until 1825. A useful addition.

Schubert: String Quintet, String Trio
Aviv Quartet, Amit Peled, cello
NAXOS 8.573891

Where chamber music is concerned Schubert’s Quintet is as good as it gets and is here given a ravishingly beautiful recording. The Adagio is immaculate in its sensitivity and detail. A treasure!

Mahan Esfahani – harpsichord

Anyone who thinks of the harpsichord as relegated to early music or continuo really needs to engage with this new recording. Mahan Esfahani is a champion of contemporary writing for the instrument and the new cd has works by five modern composers, three of whom are still living. The works often include electronic tracks and effects as well as the demanding solo parts. It is challenging, certainly, but richly rewarding.

Dvorak: Symphony No 6
Deutsche Radio Philharmonie, Pietari Inkinen
SWR 19093CD

A fine recording of the symphony with the added bonus of three rare Dvorak overtures – Selma sedlak, Vanda and Hussiten. All of them worth a listen and beautifully crafted here.


William Dawson: Negro Folk Symphony
Ulysses Kay: Fantasy Variations; Umbrian Scene
ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, Arthur Fagen
NAXOS 8.559870

Dawson’s symphony was written in 1931 and first performed under Leopold Stokowski in 1934. It is a richly romantic work which was well received at the time but has since aroused far less interest. Of the two works here it is certainly the more interesting as Kay’s Fantasy sounds pleasant but conventional both in structure and tonal interest.


2ND Chopin Festival Hamburg 2019
Live recordings from last summer
NAXOS 8.579068

There are two ways of approaching this fine recording. Musically it covers a wide range of familiar Chopin pieces, all beautifully played, and the sense of a live event is very real. More importantly for those interested in what Chopin may have sounded like in his own, and subsequent, periods, the recording involves a wide range of historical instruments, as well as modern ones, to allow us to compare pieces alongside each other. It is highly impressive and one realises quickly just how much different a particular instrument makes to the impact of the piece. An unexpected delight on both levels.

CDs May 2020 (2)


STEPHEN FARR, Organ of StadtKirche, Waltershausen, Germany
RESONUS RES10259  79’02

Unlike some ‘complete’ recordings these sublime chorale settings make for a beautiful programme in their own right. As performed on this organ in Stephen Farr’s continuing project to record the organ works of Bach they make for delightful listening.


RESONUS RES10256  72’32

This CD presents a balanced programme of works for soloists and orchestra by a composer whose music always sounds fresh and exciting without straying too far from the melodic. A good overview and an entertaining listen.


RESONUS RES10263  61’23

The Coronavirus pandemic may have put paid to the outdoor celebrations but here we have a wonderful disc that commemorates the setting out for the New World of the Pilgrim Fathers on the Mayflower 400 years ago. These sacred and secular works are taken from books that travelled on the voyage, mostly vocal but with the occasional instrumental piece including music by Dowland, Campion & Richard Allison. A delightful disc with some very interesting settings.


HYPERION CDA68326 69’29

A disc of music by this still relatively unknown composer from the Spanish Baroque is a very welcome addition. The main work is complimented by a number of other liturgical settings. Included before the Mass is Hortus conclusus by Rodrigo de Ceballos which gives its name to the setting. De Profundis present seem very at home with this music.


HYPERION CDA68301 64’45

The classic Anglican cathedral sound is presented well in this CD from Westminster Abbey. Parry’s substantial Songs of Farewell fills the 2nd half but the lesser known and shorter works that lead up to them are equally enjoyable. Together they make for a very satisfying sequence. Recorded not in the Abbey, but at All Hallows, Gospel Oak. Choir, soloists and organist all produce a beautiful blended sound.


DAVID HILL, conductor
HYPERION CDA68294 71’32

I didn’t know this work. Rather than being part of the Anglican choral tradition this is a large scale concert work for choir, soloists and orchestra, written originally for the Three Choirs Festival at Worcester. After a few initial performances It was not revisited until the composer’s 90th birthday but remains The booklet makes for interesting reading, referring to the near loss of the manuscript when the composer’s bag was stolen from a train! This work deserves to be better known. A lovely bonus track is Michael: A Fanfare setting – a lovely arrangement, originally by the composer, of his well-loved hymn tune for All my hope on God is founded. Choir and orchestra are in good voice.


HYPERION CDA68328  56’59

I highly recommend this CD of choral music from a Latvian composer who is not yet 30. At times ethereal and relaxing and at other times experimental and more challenging there is great variety and some enthralling performances. The choir of young voices is put through its paces, with demands including some unusual vocal effects as part of the highly disciplined but arresting sound. Unusual texts sit alongside traditional ones. The two longer works here are a setting of O lux beata Trinitas  and When (text from Romeo & Juliet).


HYPERION CDA68285 64’06

Another beautiful choral disc with interesting programming. Much of the music here is based around the service of Compline which marks the end of the day. Alongside classic English settings by Tallis, Tye & Byrd are contemporary compositions of traditional and contemporary texts. Composers include Joanna Marsh, Veljo Tormis and Owain Park himself. The exquisite blend of The Gesualdo Six enables the music to breathe and soar.


WIDOR – ORGAN SYMPHONIES 1 (Nos. 1 & 2, Op 13)
WOLFGANG RUBSAM, Skinner organ of Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, University of Chicago
NAXOS 8.574161 84’01
WIDOR – ORGAN SYMPHONIES 2 (Nos. 3 & 4, Op 13)
WOLFGANG RUBSAM, Skinner organ of Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, University of Chicago
NAXOS 8.574195 78’03

The Naxos Organ Encyclopedia Series is already an impressive achievement with a range of repertoire, well known and less familiar. It is surprising that it is only now that these works have been recorded as part of the project. It is good to have them presented in sequential order in this format with a substantial and interesting American organ being put through its paces by Mr Rubsam. The 2nd disc includes an original  movement from the 2nd Symphony that was subsequently replaced – fascinating to compare the two.


NAXOS 8.573854 61’38

Here we have a lovely collection of the earliest surviving repertoire for lute duo, some of it also for voice. This is a very enjoyable programme and an opportunity to hear fine performances of music few are likely to be familiar with.


DYNAMIC CDS7860 69’03

Here is another release of unusual repertoire. Veracini lived in Florence from late 17th until the early 18th. This music for violin and chamber group has been recorded and released in its entirety for the first time.


ONDINE ODE 1352-2  53’33

The bulk of this CD returns us to much more familiar ground with this setting of the Vigil, first performed in a concert setting. Four other short works that follow are far less familiar and make for an interesting conclusion. They include A Jurists’ Song, written for the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Imperial School of Jurisprudence in St Petersburg, where the composer had studied.







DVDs/ CDs May 2020

Wagner: Der Fliegende Hollander
Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Fabio Luisi
UNITEL 753808

This production by Paul Curran took me back almost half a century to Wieland Wagner’s production which we saw in Bayreuth. Here the sea is the real protagonist and the video projections by Otto Driscoll give a dramatic impact Wieland could only dream of. If the acting is not quite up to the impact of the settings – singers tend to look to the conductor at key moments rather than at each other – then the singing is not in doubt, with Marjorie Owens’ Senata as fine as one could wish for today. The ages of the cast are a little odd as well. This may not matter within a large opera house but close up the Dutchman (finely and ruggedly sung by Thomas Gazheli) looks old enough to be Senta’s grandfather, Bernhard Berchtold as Erik could be her father and only the Steerman (a wonderful naturalistic performance from Timothy Oliver) looks to be her age. The chorus are splendid and don’t over play their hand while the exposed pit makes Wagner’s orchestration all the more thrilling. A pity it is in the three act version as it would have worked well as a single act given the dramatic impact.

Prokofiev: Romeo & Juliet
Ural Opera Ballet, Ekaterinburg, Pavel Klinichev

I have got so used to Kenneth Macmillan’s splendid version for the Royal Ballet that it comes as something of a shock to engage with an approach which is so vibrant and yet so different. The Ural Opera Ballet bring a sense of youth and vitality, together with Vyacheslav Samadurov’s fluid and yet always virile choreography, creating a world which is totally convincing. One never feels the dance is simply padding or marking the time before the next dramatic moment. Characterisation is very strong with Igor Bulytsyn a rumbustious Mercutio alongside Alexandr Merkushev’s boyishly naïve Romeo and Ekaterina Sapagova’s Juliet just on the cusp of womanhood. This, together with fine playing under Pavel Klinichev, makes for a most effective and moving interpretation.

JS Bach: The Toccatas
Masaaki Suzuki, harpsichord
BIS 2221

We are more familiar with Masaaki Susuki as the director of the Bach Collegium, Japan, but this is one of a number of recordings of solo music he has issued. It may seem strange to label it The Toccatas when there are potentially so many collections which could be given this title. All the more so as the seven works recorded were not necessarily designed as a collection by the composer himself. However they certainly work well together and the order of the performance has been decided by Masaaki Suzuki, opening with the G minor BWV915 and concluding with the F sharp minor BWV910. These are fine performances, with a clarity and precision, but without any lack of humanity in the playing.

Elgar and Beach Piano Quintets
Takacs Quartet, Garrick Ohlsson, piano

An interesting combination, the Elgar more familiar and immediate, and Amy Beach’s almost unknown. Yet they sit very comfortably alongside each other and in any concert programme would seem perfectly appropriate. Both are in minor keys and introspective in tone and approach, though always engaging.

Shostakovich: Violin Concertos
Alina Ibragimova, violin; State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia, Vladimir Jurowski

David Oistrakh, for whom the first concerto was written, asked the composer to redraft the opening of the final movement to allow him some slight respite after the rigours of the cadenza. Alina Ibragimova choses here to give us the original version, and splendidly so. One can sense why Oistrakh asked for the rewrite but the original is certainly convincing and it is good to have it available.

Bassoon Concertos
Bram van Sambeek, bassoon; Swedish Chamber Orchestra, Alexei Ogrintchouk
BIS 2467

A charming combination. The Mozart and Weber concerti are very familiar but I had never come across Edouard Du Puy though his composition sits snuggly between his more famous brethren. Bram van Sambeek brings a lightness of touch and gentle humour to the solo part which makes this a very attractive disc.

Max Reger: Clarinet Quintet, String Sextet
Thorsten Johanns, clarinet; Diogenes Quartet; Roland Glassl, viola; Wen-Sinn Yang, cello
CPO 555 340-2

I have known Reger best from his organ compositions, so this opened new doors for me. The String Sextet reminded me of late Richard Strauss in its mellow romanticism and the Clarinet Quintet has a freshness of touch which is engaging.

Franck: Le Chasseur Maudit
RCS voices; Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Jean-Luc Tingaud
NAXOS 8.573955

This is Franck at his most Wagnerian which is not necessarily to all tastes though fine if you are happy to indulge in late romantic angst. Les Eolides is particularly atmospheric, but the whole is a tribute to Franck’s superb orchestrations.

Haydn: Ops 20 No 1, 4 & 6
Dudok Quartet, Amsterdam

This is the second cd covering Op20 and is as impressive as the first with its intelligence and humanity. Worth seeking out immediately.

CDs/DVDs April 2020 (2)

Purcell: King Arthur
Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin, Rene Jacobs
NAXOS 2.110658

There are a number of very obvious difficulties with this production, the most immediate of which is the fact that it is far more play-with-music than opera. While Purcell’s score is very well sung and played under Rene Jacobs, the production itself updates the story to the 1940s with Arthur as an 8 year old indulging fantasies of his father who is a dead fighter-pilot. The musical numbers are sung in English but the play text is in German with subtitles. King Arthur has never been an easy work to stage – Dido is possibly the only stage work of Purcell which stages easily today – but this production, for all its occasional felicities, never quite comes off.

Verdi: Falstaff
Teatro Real, Madrid, Danielle Rustioni

This production, like a number of other recent stagings, moves the action into the 1950s and then carries through with conviction. The opening scene in a cramped café is brilliant in setting the seedy background for the whole work, bringing the realities of class clearly into focus at the same time as making sense of the sexual politics. Roberto de Candia is a fine and rascally Falstaff, and I particularly enjoyed Joel Prieto’s Fenton, but the whole cast work well as an ensemble and their enjoyment carries sympathetically.

Wagner: Die Walkure
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Simon Rattle

This was recorded live in Munich over a year ago but only just released. The previous Das Rheingold had assumed a fairly rapid release for the whole cycle, even if it was being built up over a number of years, but the rather lukewarm reception for that recording may lie behind the late release of the second part of the Ring. Rattle is not an obvious Wagnerian but the more romantic, lyrical score which imbues Walkure seems more to his taste and, with a very well balanced cast, this is certainly a much stronger argument for pursuing this Ring. Stuart Skelton is surely one of the finest Sigmund’s around at the moment, and the first act is very impressive.  Irene Theorin is a steely Brunnhilde and James Rutherford a youthful Wotan. In all, a splendid release and one which makes me look forward to the other two operas with enthusiasm.

Beethoven: the Piano Concertos
Stephen Hough, piano; Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Hannu Lintu

This is a pleasing set – a light, fresh approach to the concerti. I particularly enjoyed the Third and Fourth concerti which don’t get quite as much coverage as the Fifth. Stephen Hough is obviously enjoying himself and this comes across with ease.

Clara Schumann; Piano Trio, Fanny Mendelssohn, Piano Trio, String Quartet
The Nash Ensemble

Three works which prove to be highly contrasted. I particularly enjoyed Fanny Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio which is forthright, almost aggressive in its writing, and makes an immediate impact. If the Clara Schumann is more contemplative it is also lyrically uplifting. An impressive coupling.

Pergolesi: Stabat Mater
Les Talens Lyriques, Christophe Rousset

This is an engaging disc with counter-tenor Christophe Rousset particularly impressive. In addition to the more familiar Stabat Mater we also have Nicola Porpora’s Salve Regina with Sandrine Piau as soloist and Leonardo Leo’s Beatus Vir.  A fine combination and all the more valuable for the rarer works.

DVDs/CDs April 2020 (1)

Handel: Messiah ed. Goossens / Beecham
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Jonathan Griffith
Those of us of a certain age can recall a time when most Messiah’s were far closer to this full orchestral sound than the original instrument versions we have come to expect more recently. There really is a great deal to enjoy here particularly if you are prepared to indulge in the romanticised approach. The purists may not like it but I certainly did and the solo singing – minus any hint of ornamentation – is delightful, and tempi under Jonathan Griffith keep the pace moving smoothly. A welcome addition to the many recordings currently available – just sit back and enjoy the trombones and cymbal crashes.
Handel: works for viola da gamba and harpsichord
Ibrahim Aziz, viola da gamba; Masumi Yamamoto, harpsichord
FHR 91
This is not quite what it seems as much of the disc is given over to solo works for either gamba or harpsichord and two of the works are only attributed to Handel. That said most of the music here will be unfamiliar to all but the real enthusiast and therefore all the more welcome in expanding our knowledge of chamber music from Handel.
Cole Porter; A Celebration
Juliane Banse, soprano; Deutsche Radio Philharmonie, Dorian Wilson
SWR 19091CD
A strange mixture here but quite entertaining. Concert overtures are mixed with songs from Julianne Banse. Her voice is not an obvious one for musicals, seeming at times to be over-operatic but the music itself comes over with style and panache.
Rachmaninoff: Complete works for piano duo
Genova and Dimitrov Piano Duo
CPO 555 326-2
This recording mixes works specifically for piano duo with arrangements by the composer of more familiar works for two pianos. The cd opens with the Prelude in C sharp minor and the second concludes with the Symphonic Dances Op45. But as is so often the case, it is the lesser known works which prove to be equally engaging, even the brief Romance in G or the Polka Italienne.
Sullivan: Haddon Hall, Cellier: Captain Billy, Ford: Mr Jericho
BBC Concert Orchestra and BBC Singers, John Andrews
There was a time when the only way of hearing very rare works was thanks to the BBC and here we certainly have some rarities. While the G&S canon is over-familiar I doubt there will be many who know Sullivan’s Haddon Hall, written in 1892 to a libretto by Sydney Grundy. But preceding this is Mr Jericho by Ernest Ford and you could be forgiven for thinking this is also by Sullivan, so similar is the style and melodic structure. This, and Francois Cellier’s Captain Billy, was written as a short curtain raiser, like Sullivan’s own Cox and Box. The booklet notes that these are world premiere recordings of the Cellier and Ford, and the first professional recording of Haddon Hall. It is certainly good to have them.
Rachmaninoff: Victor Talking Machine Company Recordings
Sergei Rachmaninoff, piano – recorded 1922-24
NAXOS 8.111413
There are some fascinating items here. Not only do we hear the composer playing his own scores but can witness his approach to others, notably Chopin and Tchaikovsky. The recording also includes the second piano concerto, with two attempts at the first movement! Fascinating. My only slight caveat, as one who has a player piano, is that Rachmaninoff sounds far better playing on our piano than he does on 78s!

Schumann: Cello Concerto, Alfredo Piatti, Cello Concerto No2, Concertino for cello and orchestra
Josephine Knight, cello, Royal Northern Sinfonia, Martin Yates
Although slightly younger than Schumann, Piatti lived into the twentieth century, though the two works here are firmly within the mid-nineteenth century romantic school. I particularly enjoyed the Concertino written in the early 1860s and here receiving its world premiere recording. The Schumann may seem more familiar but this is the original version, again recorded for the first time, and as such a welcome addition to the otherwise large number of recordings of the familiar version. A strong performance throughout from soloist and orchestra.


CDs/DVDs March 2020 2

Fandango: music for solo guitar and string quartet
Johan Lofving, guitar; Consone Quartet

Most of this recording is given over to solo pieces from the late eighteenth / early nineteenth century with the addition of Boccherini’s unusual but appealing quintet. The recording demonstrates the range of guitar music at a time when it was popular as a classical instrument.

J S Bach: Orgelbuchlein
Stephen Farr, Trost organ, Waltershausen

The Trost organ dates from 1730 and is huge. While there is much to enjoy in the range of approach which Stephen Farr brings to the Orgelbuchlein I cannot help feeling that the works really sit more comfortably on a much smaller instrument. There is often an intimacy in the writing which is lost in the vast spaces of enormous church buildings. However this is highly subjective and I accept that there will be many very happy with both the sound produced and the quality of the playing.

Mahler: Symphony No 6
Essener Philharmoniker, Tomas Netopil

I found Tomas Netopil’s approach too introspective in the opening movement – a lack of fire where it normally overwhelms – but the slow movement works very well and the playing is splendid throughout. If you want a different approach, this may appeal.

Janacek: From the House of the Dead
Bavarian State Opera, Simone Young

While musically impressive this is somewhat difficult to follow on a tv screen. The production uses video clips and it is not always clear to what extent what we are watching is current, in the mind of the singer or a comment on the action. Not being able to see all the stage, which we would in the theatre, we can’t choose what to focus on. This said, the musical side is impressive with Peter Rose outstanding as Gorjancikov, but supported by a fine cast of singers who can act with intelligence.

Ferruccio Busoni: Violin Sonatas
Ingolf Turban, violin, Ilja Scheps, piano
CPO 555 213-2

I found this pleasant but not really engaging. The sort of pieces one might encounter at a lunchtime recital in an arts festival but unlikely to be something one returns to regularly. Useful to add to a larger collection.

Brahms: Songs of Loss and Betrayal
Simon Wallfisch, baritone; Edward Rushton, piano

These are highly personal pieces from Brahms, bringing an intimacy and intensity meant for almost domestic enjoyment, even when the text is challenging. The cd includes Lieder und Gesange von G F Daumer Op57; Funf Lieder Op105; Funf Lieder Op94 and Lieder und Gesange Op32.

Verdi; Nabucco
Teatro Regio di Parma, Francesco Ivan Ciampa

The approach is unconventional – seemingly set on board a vast container ship – but the modern costumes and sense of servitude is very well presented, and given the excellent singing throughout it is actually very moving despite any potential reservations about the setting. If you get a chance look at Va pensiero which is superb in its simplicity.