CDs/DVDs May 2018

Berlioz: Benvenuto Cellini
Dutch National Opera, Mark Elder
NAXOS 2.110575-76

This production by Terry Gilliam was a great success when first staged for ENO but here, in its original language with the Dutch National Opera, presumably has a better chance of international sales. Not that there is any lessening in my enthusiasm for the production as all the strengths of the original are certainly very much in evidence and the singing throughout is convincing with John Osborn a fine Cellini. It would have been good to have had the original ENO cast but such are the exigencies of recording these days.

Niccolo Jommelli: Il Vologeso
Stuttgart Opera, Gebriele Ferro
NAXOS 2.110395-96

No, I had not heard of Niccolo Jommelli before this recording arrived but I really don’t understand why apart from the obvious problems of history. The score is fluent and frequently heart-meltingly moving as it depicts the emotional turmoil of individual characters. It seems that the reason the scores have been overlooked is that, when they were written in the mid-eighteenth century, the book/libretto and the scenery were more important than the score. Consequently, while there were many different versions of the text set to music, audiences came to the play not the setting. As such, once Jommelli’s setting had been heard a number of times it fell out of favour and a new score was commissioned. Thus almost all of Jommelli’s scores were archived until in recent years an attempt has been made to revive them – an attempt which here shows itself to have been distinctly worth the effort. Hopefully Garsington or Wexford may take up the cause?

Mozart; Don Giovanni
National Theatre Prague, Placido Domingo
CMAJOR 745208

There are two reasons to recommend this recording. The first is Placido Domingo’s handling of the score. The second is that this is the theatre for which Mozart wrote the opera. We were fortunate, when visiting Prague a few years ago, to attend Don Giovanni in the Estates Theatre in this production and it is fascinating to do so as the work comes across very differently from the vast expanses of many major opera houses. That intimacy is found here both in the production itself and the singers. Worth investing in on both accounts.

Schubert: Piano Sonata; Four Impromptus
Marc-Andre Hamelin

Marc-Andre Hamelin’s muscular approach is linked to enormous sensitivity which makes for a highly exciting and engaging performance. The B flat piano sonata is particularly effective with the brooding introspection of much of the opening movement easing into its intense lyricism. All of this is achieved with apparent ease of fluency throughout. His reputation may go before him but is more than justified by this most recent addition to his recorded repertoire.

Smetana: Festive Symphony
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, Darrell Ang
NAXOS 8.573672

For all Smetana’s popularity this symphony is almost unknown. This is the result of politics rather than musical appreciation. Soon after its composition, the rise of Czech nationalism found the Austrian national anthem unacceptable and there was no way Smetana could rewrite the work to remove the quotations. As a result it was quietly dropped. A great shame, as this recording shows, for it is a lively and engaging work which sits happily alongside the excerpts from The Bartered Bride which make up the rest of the cd.

Erik Satie: Gymnopedies, Gnossiennes and other works
Giacomo Scinardo, piano

Giacomo Scinardo takes a leisurely approach to many of these works with relaxed tempi and many moments of near stasis – all of which is entirely in keeping with the works themselves. The pieces are formed into a convincing programme which splits up the suites rather than recording each as a set in its own right, which makes it easier to hear as a whole, closer to a recital programme than a recording. Highly recommended.

The Romantic Piano Concerto: 75 Ferdinand Ries
Piers Lane, piano, The Orchestra Now, Leon Botstein

Volume 75? Is there no end to the series? Well obviously not when the quality of works continues to impress. Ferdinand Ries was taught by Beethoven, and his own father had taught Beethoven the violin. The influence is clear here but in no sense derivative, the rich romantic writing looking forward to the mid-nineteenth century rather than back to Mozart or Haydn. If you have been following the series this is clearly a fine example of re-discovering works which should never have been lost.

G P Telemann: Concerti
Tempesta di Mare, Philadelphia Baroque Orchestra & Chamber Players

You might be forgiven for thinking you were listening to Handel’s Water Music when encountering the Concerto Suite TWV 54, so close are they in style and musical ideas. However this is Telemann at his sparkling best  and the recording brings together for the first time the composer’s three remaining Concerti-en-suite. These are closer to a concerto for soloist and ensemble but are built around dance suites rather than the conventional classical three movements. They are charming and engaging throughout.

J S Bach: Partitas WV 825-830
Menno van Delft, clavichord

These partitas are more familiarly known as Clavier-Ubung though the cd cover makes no mention of this and it is not until one delves into the booklet that one realises that they are one and the same. The two cds cover all six partitas and Menno van Delft brings a bright enthusiasm to his playing throughout. Though there are many versions of these works this is certainly a strong addition to the range.

Beethoven: Piano Sonatas
Angela Hewitt

This most recent cd opens with the Sonata No17 in D minor Tempest followed by No13 in Eb major. This is the twin to the more familiar Moonlight Sonata and as such often overlooked. There is no problem here with relegation as the performance is effortlessly beautiful. Additionally, we have an exhilarating reading of No25 in G major which sparkles throughout and a gentler, more reflective reading of No30 in E major with its unexpected hushed conclusion. A fine recording which I know I will return to.

The Nutcracker and I
Alexandra Dariescu (piano)
Lindsey Russell (narrator)
Jessica Duchen (story)

It’s an attractive package – a slim CD-sized book, perfect for small hands, with a slot for the CD inside the front cover. The idea of a narrated account of the Nutcracker story with piano transcriptions of the music is interesting too.

The young reader can follow the story in the attractively illustrated (by whom?)  book as she – or let’s hope he – listens to the CD. My children used to love following stories as they were narrated and I think it helped them with reading skills. I shall happily pass this CD and book on to my seven year old granddaughter, who already loves ballet, when I’ve finished with it.

Dariescu plays the transcriptions (by various people) beautifully and some of them require terrific technical skill with contrary rhythms across the keyboard. She also ensures that we hear a lot of colourful left hand work – melodic lines which are often lost in the orchestral texture. The musical interludes are quite long too so that it’s free to be narratively expressive and it feels respectful rather than in any way dumbed down.

Duchen’s story presents Clara as an ambitious child pianist who goes on an adventure with her Nutcracker-turned-Prince. He shows her that she can, with work and determination, be a virtuoso. He teaches her to believe in herself by taking her through doors to exotic countries to hear music and watch dance. Drosselmeyer has gone. The mice are more realistically saurine than the baddies they’re usually portrayed as.  It’s ingenious and attractive with some really pleasing lyrical prose such as flying to the Land of Sweets “on the wings of the music” and admiring the “ornate turquoise tiling and filigree metalwork”. It’s also compelling, uplifting and affirmative – just what children need. Lindsey Russell gets the right  story telling tone too. She sounds slightly breathy, childlike and enthusiastic.

The CD is presented in 14 bands to represent the scenes – pretty much as they occur in the original although of course it’s heavily abridged. It means that you can select just one section if you wish which could be useful for parents and teachers seeking to introduce The Nutcracker by drip feed.This CD and book are a quasi preview of the stage show which Dariecu (also the artistic director and producer for this project) is touring this year. I shall be seeing and reviewing it for Lark Reviews in October.

Susan Elkin

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