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Barry Forshaw’s classical CD picks

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RICHARD STRAUSS: CAPRICCIO

Renee Fleming/The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra/Andrew Davis/Decca BLU-RAY

It is something of an understatement to say that this is the role that Renee Fleming was born to sing (the same, of course, might be said regarding another Strauss soprano role, the Marschalin in Der Rosenkavalier). And here is an exquisite reminder of the perfect marriage of soprano and performance, capturing one of the great forces from the Met in splendidly clear Blu-ray imagery.

NIELSEN: SYMPHONIES 1 & 6

Colin Davis/London Symphony Orchestra/LSO Live SACD

For those of us lucky enough to have been at several (or all) of Colin Davis’s recent series of concerts tackling the six symphonies of the Danish composer Carl Nielsen, it was quickly apparent that we were present at one of the major musical events of the last few years -- a judgement which is now spreading out into the musical press as the very welcome recordings of those concerts attest. It is a measure of Davis’s greatness as a conductor that despite his immense sympathy and understanding for such Scandinavian composers as Sibelius, Nielsen is a relatively recent addition to his curriculum vitae, but (unsurprisingly) Davis demonstrates the customary authority with this sometimes knotty but always immensely rewarding music. At this latest instalment proves, this is one of the great Nielsen symphony cycles and as the first in the super audio medium, it has the field to itself. The caveat that some recent Davis recordings are marred by sometimes audible vocal interjections are not an issue here, as these largely absent (congratulations to the engineers on this count). As to the performances of the composer’s first and last symphonies: they are quite simply nonpareil and make one impatient for the completion of a remarkable symphonic cycle.

BRAHMS: VARIATIONS ON A THEME OF HAYDN, etc.

Bamberger Symphoniker/Ticciati/Tudor SACD

If you pay any attention to the music press, you will be becoming aware that this particular collection of exquisitely wrought Brahms pieces has been garnering nothing but rave reviews -- so you will not be surprised to hear that this review is yet another one. In subtly detailed SACD sound, Ticciati and the Bamberger Symphoniker provide a truly captivating collection, with the affection of conductor and orchestra for the music evident in every bar.

SCHUMAN/ BARBER/DIAMOND, etc.: AMERICAN STRINGBOOK

Do.gma chamber orchestra/ Mikhail Gurewitsch/Audio Max SACD

On their second album, the youthful (if annoyingly named) do.gma chamber orchestra led by Mikhail Gurewitsch deliver an unusual programme. Those who have discovered the vivid, intense music of William Schuman will be well aware that he is one of the most rewarding composers to have emerged from America, combining sinewy strength with an imposing command of orchestral resources. Those characteristics are particularly evident in the composer’s Fifth Symphony, here given a notably dramatic reading (if without the intensity of the classic Bernstein reading). The piece, of course, is written for strings alone and is immeasurably aided here by the surround sound recording which does full justice to this and the other American pieces. But -- a plea to record companies: must every single recording that features the music of Samuel Barber be obliged to include his ubiquitous Adagio for Strings? I’ll make a bet that if you check your shelves, you will find you have more recordings of the piece then you need – and this disc includes yet another which could profitably have been replaced by one of the many other under-recorded pieces by Barber.

DVORAK: BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY

Camerata Nova Prague/Suk/Musical Concepts

Those of us who relish the music of Dvorak have a tendency to collect every iota of the Czech composer’s orchestral works, so this new recording is particularly welcome even though it is, in fact, ersatz Dvorak. The orchestration of work for smaller forces is done with great skill, and the disc is a treasure trove of colourful, attractive music.

BRUCKNER: SYMPHONY NO. 8 IN C MINOR (1890 VERSION)

Beethoven Orchestra Bonn/Blunier/MDG SACD

Combining the requisite monumental qualities with a performance of tremendous strength and authority, the Beethoven Orchestra Bonn under Blunier furnishes Bruckner playing of a rare order and justifies yet another appearance of this much-recorded symphony. The felicities of the SACD medium are utilised to the full.

MALIPIERO: ORCHESTRAL WORKS

Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma/Francesco La Vecchia/Naxos

if you have a taste for the heady, highly coloured impressionistic music of Ottorino Respighi, but have acquired all that composer’s principal works, then perhaps it’s time to sample the music of another great Italian orchestral composer of the 20th century, Gian Francesco Malipiero -- and there are few better places to start than with this CD. This excellently played collection features two highly valuable world premiere recordings, and the music, iridescent and full of character, almost rivals the composer’s contemporary Respighi in its invention and distinction.

FRANZ WAXMAN: TARAS BULBA

City of Prague Philharmonic/Nic Raine/Tadlow Music

For many aficionados of great orchestral film music, this two-CD set will be a dream come true. J Lee Thompson’s film Taras Bulba may have been decidedly a lesser epic, but the astonishingly rich and vivid score produced by the veteran Franz Waxman was one of the chef d’ouevres of a long and illustrious career; music of pronounced drama and colour that supplied all the elements only fitfully present in the film for which it was composed. Waxman was, of course, one of the great golden age composers, and his scores were matched only by those of Erich Korngold in the evocation of epic adventure. Taras Bulba, one of the composer’s last scores, demonstrated that he had lost not an iota of his mastery of the orchestral palette. The original soundtrack LP, while powerfully played was recorded by smaller forces that those used in the film, and -- more disappointingly -- captured a mere 40 minutes or so of this long and complicated score. It had long been the ambition of the producer James Fitzpatrick (who has many an ambitious and challenging re-recording of great film scores under his belt) to capture the whole of Waxman’s masterpiece on CD, and this extremely welcome double CD set does just that, played with great vigour by the orchestra under Nic Raine (who also transcribed the orchestration). Perhaps some of the unrecorded songs written to be sung in the film by Yul Brynner (as the eponymous warrior) do not invite repeated listenings, but few will complain given the immense amount of quite splendid orchestral music on offer here.

D’INDY/SAINT-SAËNS/CHAUSSON: ORCHESTRAL WORKS

Orchestre de laSuisseRomande/Janowski/PentaTone SACD

More exploration of the byways of the orchestral repertoire in translucent and subtle surround sound provided by the always exemplary PentaTone engineers.

MATHIAS/VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: WORKS FOR PIANO AND ORCHESTRA

Mark Bebbington, piano/Ulster Orchestra/Vass/Somm

Three rarities dispatched with great aplomb by musicians who have clearly set out to persuade us that this music does not deserve the neglect it has suffered. Vaughan Williams, of course, is now recognized as one of the greatest of English composers, though this piece is not a major rediscovery. But the Welsh symphonist William Mathias is a man whose day is yet to come – and perhaps a recording of these impressive piano concertos is something that will hasten the arrival of that day.

WEINBERG: REQUIEM

Weinberg Edition Voume 3/Neos SACD

In this welcome series of recordings of the music of Weinberg (running in tandem with a similarly enterprising one from the Chandos label) it is inevitably the composer’s symphonies – often reminiscent of his friend Shostakovich -- which most bid fair to attract listeners’ attention. But this knotty and sombre Requiem -- while by no means an easy piece for the listener to absorb -- perhaps justifies listening time from those who have succumbed to the symphonies.

BERNARD HERMANN: JANE EYRE

Slovak Radio Symphony orchestra/Adriano/Naxos

Most of the major film music composers from Jerry Goldsmith to John Williams bowed the knee before the great (and notoriously prickly) Bernard Herrmann, who is generally regarded as the most influential of modern film composers. His most famous association, of course, was with the director Alfred Hitchcock, but his work with Orson Welles is equally celebrated – from, in fact, his first film score (for Welles’ debut film Citizen Kane) to this adaptation of the Charlotte Bronte classic (which Welles starred in but did not direct). The score is in the composer’s most dramatic and affecting romantic manner.

SVENDSEN: ORCHESTRAL WORKS, VOLUME 1

Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/ Neeme Järvi/Chandos

Bibliophiles often complain about the extra space that they have to find on their shelves for new books, but spare a thought for those of us whose book collecting is only exceeded by their CD acquisition. And there is a record company who is making things very difficult for us – Chandos, who are continually inaugurating exploration programmes of composers that we really do need on our shelves. Currently underway is a welcome Miklós Rósza series, and while this new initiative devoted to the charming music of Johan Svendsen may not have the immediate appeal of the Rósza sequence, it is still seductive. This is the initial volume in a projected series of four, dedicated to the orchestral works of the Norwegian composer.

RACHMANINOV: THE BELLS/SPRING/THREE RUSSIAN SONGS

Soloists, BBC Philharmonic/Gianandrea Noseda/Chandos

This simply had to be a distinguished performance, appearing in a relatively short time after the appearance of a dramatic reading by Semyon Bychkov. And so it proves to be – though one might regret the fact that Chandos have not opted to record this in super audio surround sound like its rival. This is the seventh and final volume in the Chandos Rachmaninoff series, which has been performed by the BBC Philharmonic under Gianandrea Noseda.

LISZT: TONE POEMS/HUNGARIAN RHAPSODIES

London Philharmonic Orchestra de Paris/Solti, Fischer/Eloquence

Gradually, the neglected tone poems of Franz Liszt are becoming available in a variety of performances, but few have the sheer character and kinetic qualities of these classic readings in vivid Decca sound that has worn well over the years.

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS/IVES/ADAMS/BRITTEN: MUSIC FOR A TIME OF WAR

Oregon Symphony/Kalmar/PentaTone SACD

With a strong performance of Vaughan Williams’ violent and muscular Fourth Symphony as its centrepiece, this is an enterprising collection, even though the ‘war’ motif is tendentious – Vaughan Williams fought shy of such interpretations.

LEHAR: FRASQUITA

Soloists/Franz-Lehar Orchestra/Vinzenz Praxmarer/CPO

Lehar’s tuneful operetta, given a sprightly reading; perhaps lacking in that final ounce of charm, but otherwise valuable. The acres of dialogue may be problematical on repeated listenings.

HAVERGAL BRIAN: SYMPHONY NO 1 IN D MINOR ‘THE GOTHIC’

BBC National Concert Orchestra of Wales/Brabbins/Hyperion

Hyperion’s release of Havergal Brian’s Symphony No 1 in D minor is taken from the celebrated Prom performance on 17 July 2011, and comprehensively outpaces all its rivals for sheer élan, even making Brian’s compendious, baggy structure seem utterly coherent.

LUTOSŁAWSKI: SYMPHONIC VARIATIONS; SYMPHONY NO. 4; etc.

Louis Lortie (piano)/BBC Symphony Orchestra/Edward Gardner/Chandos SACD

It is possible to be an admirer of the composer Lutoslawski in one of his periods (the more accessible, tonal period) rather than his more rebarbative, confrontational work. What makes this particular Chandos series so winning in its readiness to combine the two, allowing listeners who may be more persuaded by one side of the composer’s personality to sample the other. And here, orchestra and conductor are utterly convincing in everything in the programme. This is the third volume in the Chandos series devoted to the music of the Polish composer

and it brings together his first surviving orchestral piece (the Symphonic Variations) and his last symphony, as well as two works for piano and orchestra – an early work originally written for two pianos (the Paganini Variations), and his very last concerto.

SHOSTAKOVICH CELLO CONCERTOS NOS. 1 AND 2

Enrico Dindo (cello)/Danish National Symphony Orchestra/Gianandrea Noseda/Chandos SACD

Shostakovich’s second cello concerto has appeared in the SACD medium before, but this highly useful coupling of the first and second concertos instantaneously become a market leader. Both works are played with great character and the performances (on the swift side) are worthy to stand alongside any of the reading these works have enjoyed in the past -- and both have been singularly lucky on disc. Shostakovich composed two cello concertos for his friend and colleague Mstislav Rostropovich – another musician with an uneasy relationship with the Soviet regime. The cellist in these recordings, Enrico Dindo, was described by Rostropovich as ‘a cellist of exceptional qualities, a complete artist and a formed musician, with an extraordinary sound which flows as a splendid Italian voice’.

WAGNER: DIE MEISTERSINGER VON NÜRNBERG

Soloists/Marek Janowski/Pentatone

In the current financial climate, PentaTone’s commitment to a complete cycle of the major Wagner operas in the surround sound medium is to be commended, and this latest instalment of one of the composer’s greatest achievements is particularly welcome, even for those who may have some reservations about the reading.

DE BOECK: PRELUDE TO THE OPERA THÉROIGNE, ETC.

Janacek Philharmonic Orchestra/Venkov/Phaedra

Perhaps it’s easy to see why the composer de Boeck is neglected today; this is music that does not immediately reveal all its felicities, but this performance does sympathetic service to an interesting talent.

BRUCKNER SYMPHONY NO. 4

LSO Bernard Haitink/LSO Live

The sheer number of recordings of this most popular of Bruckner symphonies demands that any new entry justify itself -- which this steady, magisterial but utterly unerring performance does, particularly in surround sound as impressive as it is provided with here.

THE GOLDEN AGE OF THE LIGHT MUSIC: THE ART OF THE ARRANGER VOLUME 1

Various orchestras & conductors/Guild

When so much light music is of the innocuous variety, a celebration is in order of those arrangers who attempted to do something more complex and interesting with the popular material which is their remit. This is a shamelessly enjoyable collection which showcases some of the men who did their best to elevate the art of the arranger beyond that of the quotidian: Robert Farnon, Nelson Riddle, Gordon Jenkins (the last two among the most talented of Frank Sinatra’s arrangers), and one of the most astonishingly gifted men in the field, Conrad Salinger -- the man who more than anyone else was responsible for the sumptuous sound of the MGM musicals. A cherishable collection.

IRGENS-JENSEN SYMPHONY IN D MINOR

Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Bjarte Engeset/Naxos

Now here is a real find: the music on this CD contains some of the most unusual and interesting examples of Norwegian orchestral composing of the 1940s and 50s. This premiere recording of the composer’s Symphony is a particularly winning piece; not notably challenging in form, it nevertheless offers some subtle challenges for the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, which rises spectacularly to the occasion.

POUL RUDERS: SYMPHONY NUMBER FOUR: AN ORGAN SYMPHONY, etc.

Odense Symphony orchestra/Robert Minczuk/Bridge

If you have grown weary of the endless re-recordings of the standard repertoire, you may care to sample this unorthodox material by an unusual and interesting composer – though the uncompromising pieces here will by no means be to all tastes. Ruders’ Organ Symphony may not reveal all that it has to offer on just one or two hearings, but repays repeated listenings. This is music of an expressive and intelligent nature; if one had a caveat about this enterprising recording it is the fact that the recording of the organ is given insufficient ‘heft’ in the sound picture – a miscalculation in an organ symphony. Nevertheless, an intriguing issue.

THE MAHLER ALBUM

Amsterdam Sinfonietta/Channel Classics

This sumptuous recording of works by one of the two composers who guarantees full houses for concerts of his music, Gustav Mahler (the other, of course, being Beethoven), overcomes the possible drawback of containing two out- of-context symphonic extracts by the sheer precision and passion of the playing. Absolutely complete, though, is Mahler’s persuasive orchestration of Beethoven’s Quartetto Serioso, making this CD a de rigueur choice.

SHOSTAKOVICH PIANO CONCERTOS Nos.1 & 2 SHCHEDRIN PIANO CONCERTO No. 5

Denis Matsuev, Valery Gergiev/Mariinsky Orchestra/Mariinsky SACD

If the recent Hyperion SACD of a similar coupling by the pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin is slightly more pointed, this is nevertheless a welcome disc, with the inevitable command that Valery Gergiev demonstrates in this material well to the fore. The sound is slightly restricted but still has considerable impact, and admirers of the composer will find this well worth their while.

JOHANNES BRAHMS: SINFONIA IN B, etc.

Malmö Opera Orchestra/Joseph Swensen/Signum

More welcome Brahms orchestrations, adding more completely persuasive orchestral works to the composer’s existing body of music. The orchestration here by the conductor Joseph Swensen is completely in the spirit of Brahms. The Sinfonia in B is Swensen’s orchestration of the little-known original version of Brahms’ B major Piano Trio.

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