Recording of the Month
Jean Sibelius: Symphony No.1 in E minor, Op. 39, & En saga, Op.9
Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra
Conductor: Santtu-Matias Rouvali
Recorded May 28 - June 1, 2018, Gothenburg Concert Hall, Sweden
Released on January 18, 2019 by Alpha Classics
January 2019 is Sibelius Symphony month. I am much looking forward to Paavo Järvi's complete cycle from Paris for Sony – and also publishing Ateş Orga's review and Edward Clark's interview with the conductor – and, meanwhile, Santtu-Matias Rouvali (a Finn in Sweden) begins a Symphony and Symphonic Poem survey (to include Kullervo, I wonder?) from Gothenburg for Alpha.
I started with En Saga (as revised), an immediately gripping account, full of atmosphere and story-telling, Rouvali attentive to dynamics and note-values and the Gothenburg musicians honed and responsive, and the recorded sound is excellent, vivid and tangible, yet set naturally in a recognisable and unencumbered (if slightly too bright) acoustic. Rouvali builds the narrative (unstated by Sibelius, if full of potential for the imagination) by stealth, relishing the invention and colours (not least from the threatening bass drum) without overstating either and equally without denuding scenic promise. Forward momentum laced with poise and much expression is the hallmark, the latter quality to the fore during the still-centre of the piece – sensitive solo strings – and at the close (following a thrilling flare-up, with notable brass hairpins electrifying the air) during which Urban Claesson's clarinet musing is a model of poeticism as the music fades into the ghostly ether.
Symphony No.1 is no-less-fine in terms of Rouvali's commitment to it, opening with subdued if ominous timpani leaving room for (another) clarinet solo, lamenting this time, to cue a volatile reading, with passionate sweep to conjure a storm-tossed landscape but with no lack of light and shade or communicative leeway, if occasionally pulling the music out of shape, a lingering here, a broadening there, and a tendency to exaggerate the theatre of it all (the brass can now be a touch too heady).
A silent studio this may be (in terms of high production values, no noises-off) but this is not an empty orchestra, Gothenburg giving its all for a conductor who has much fervour for this music, as if an audience was present, even if the slow movement is a little too restless (some lovely tracery along the way though), for Rouvali is more likely to take time to enjoy the view. He comes into his own in the Scherzo, deliberately paced and ruggedly delineated (terrific hard-stick timpani), the Trio a languorous interlude, and the highlight is the Finale, Quasi una fantasia (not that those three words appear anywhere in Alpha's annotation), suiting Rouvali's penchant for drama and expansiveness: he makes us wait for those ultimate pizzicatos.
If a little wearing at times, and to a certain extent predictable as to interpretative choices, this first volume – one that compels if not to clear the shelves of existing versions – heralds what should be a distinctive Sibelius series, hopefully cloth being cut to suit each work. If we gave half-stars, this is three-and-a-half. I am being cautious.
Source: Colin Anderson (classicalsource.com)
With so much exceptional competition in the catalogue, it's a brave conductor who would embark on a new cycle of Sibelius's symphonies. New kid on the block Santtu-Matias Rouvali, however, is no ordinary conductor: known for his podium antics as much as for his probing musicianship, the big-haired Finn, still only in his mid-thirties, has recently taken over from Gustavo Dudamel as music director of the illustrious Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, and is also principal guest conductor of London's Philharmonia Orchestra. Until now his recordings have been mainly as accompanist in concertos, but for his first major outing with the Gothenburg orchestra on the Alpha label he pairs Sibelius's First Symphony with the early tone poem En saga, and the results are hugely impressive.
The Gothenburg Symphony has a long pedigree in this music going back to the days of Sibelius himself, and their playing throughout is immensely assured. Coupled with that is Rouvali's incredible attention to colour and textural detail. He is also the same age as Sibelius was when he completed the First Symphony in 1899, and this performance has all the vitality of youth combined with a natural feel for the harmonic pedals that underpin the music's progress. From the beautifully intoned opening clarinet theme (superbly played by principal clarinet Urban Claesson), through the animated Allegro energico to the growling close, the first movement is grippingly intense, while the second movement Andante produces some glorious sounds, not least the string choirs' bracing transformation of the main theme at 1'59'' and its exquisite follow-up.
The punchy Scherzo has an almost Mediterranean bounce and flair to it, as well as a Brucknerian sense of momentum, opening up to a magnificently Sibelian trio section with noble horns and lovingly intoned woodwind. But it is in the sprawling Finale that Rouvali really proves his mettle, drawing together the music's disparate strands to defy any criticism of the movement's structure and imbuing it with a profound sense of inevitability. The scurrying Allegro sections are superbly articulated without sacrificing any sense of excitement, while the framing Andante music has a noble depth to it, crowned by some truly splendid trumpet playing. This whole performances oozes class and character, providing further proof that the Gothenburg Symphony is one of the great Sibelius orchestras and, recorded in dazzling stereo, rivalling even the much-lauded Osmo Vänskä performances on BIS (in surround sound).
Most conductors pair the First with another of Sibelius's symphonies, but Rouvali keeps the focus here firmly on beginnings with a remarkably compelling account of En saga in its customary revised version of 1902. There's nothing normal about this performance, though, for it brings out layers of textural detail seldom heard even in the recording studio, but with an innate understanding of the work's unstated but palpable "programme". Indeed, it has a natural storyteller's vividness, with an epic arc but relishing the individual episodes, from rapt introspection to exuberant action. Both collectively and individually the Gothenburg players completely enter this world of unspecified legend to create a powerful sense of engagement that lasts long after the final bars have died away, completely justifying the decision to place this work last on the disc.
If future releases in the cycle live up to this first instalment, it will certainly be one to watch and to return to with relish. Documentation and recording are first class, and Rouvali's "solo" debut is definitely one to remember.
Witold Lutosławski & Henri Dutilleux: Cello Concertos
Johannes Moser, cello
Conductor: Thomas Søndergård
Recorded September 2017 and March 2018, Haus des Rundfunks, Berlin
Released on November 2, 2018 by Pentatone
Few of the concertante works premiered by Mstislav Rostropovich enjoy repertoire status. Among them, the concertos by Lutosławski and Dutilleux were not only written concurrently but have been coupled often since the Russian's pioneering accounts more than 40 years ago.
Johannes Moser maintains a keen focus over the eventful trajectory of the Lutosławski – ensuring absolute poise over those flights of fancy that constantly throw the soloist's rhythmic precision off-kilter before the sardonic entry of the brass; which latter permeate the cello's speculations during the fractious exchanges of the "Four Episodes" that follow. Many performances rather lose momentum in the Cantilena but Moser neither falters nor sells short this music's rapt eloquence prior to a looming unison chord on lower strings which launches the finale. Here a violent confrontation is graphically characterised, the Berlin Radio Symphony delivering a pulverising response so the soloist's desperate final gasps seem more than usually affecting.
If the Dutilleux might be felt to avoid such extremes, its inspiration in the heady fervour of Charles Baudelaire (extracts from whose verse head each movement) confirms otherwise. Moser eschews any emotional uniformity, drawing a capricious response from the interplay between soloist and orchestra in "Énigme" then conveying the sombre plangency of "Regard" to perfection. Nor is the tensile rhetoric of "Houles" at all overstated, making for a seamless transition into the sensuous unease of "Miroirs" which, in its turn, sets up a decisive contrast with the "Hymne", whose startling emergence is cannily paralleled by its teasing evaporation.
Throughout both works, Thomas Søndergård propels the music forwards with a real sense for their vastly different yet equally inevitable destinations. The SACD sound has a convincing overall perspective and Moser's booklet note ably complements his interpretations. Among previous couplings, that by Rostropovich remains mandatory listening while that by Christian Poltéra offers less demonstrative but hardly less persuasive traversals. Anyone coming afresh to these masterly works, however, should now investigate this new release ahead of all others.
Source: Richard Whitehouse (gramophone.co.uk)
Johann Sebastian Bach: Partita IV, BWV 828 – Italian Concerto, BWV 971 – Ciaccona from Partita II for Solo Violin, BWV 1004, arranged c.1897 for Solo Piano by Ferruccio Busoni
Federico Colli, piano
Recorded May 17-19, 2018, Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, England
Released on January 4, 2019 by Chandos Records
He brings to the Ouverture of the Fourth Partita a compelling sense of grandeur, while the fast writing combines buoyancy with absolute clarity in the counterpoint, with myriad shifts of dynamics and phrasing. Those shifts are something of a Colli trademark and where they work well, as here, they can be very striking. But in places he can sound a little contrived – the Allemande, for instance, in which it seems as if every phrase is given a different tinta, an effect taken to further extremes in the repeats, and the Menuet, which sounds merely mannered. But the Aria is charming, if not quite conjuring the otherworldly intimacy of Richard Goode or the sublime simplicity of Murray Perahia. The Sarabande is a highlight on this new recording, full of iridescent beauty. And Colli's revealing of the inner working of the Gigue is utterly compelling.
The Italian Concerto suits him well – the easy virtuosity of the first movement is full of interest, while the finale abounds in fascinating touches and avoids becoming a mere speedfest. In between, he gives a rapturous account of the Andante.
He ends with the mighty Bach/Busoni Chaconne. This is again full of Colli fingerprints – an ability to withdraw the sound to a mere whisper, the sense of constantly experimenting with textures and phrasing, sometimes resulting in losing the wood for the trees. Busoni once wrote of wanting to remove, in his transcriptions, "‘the dust of tradition... I try to restore them to their youth". In Colli's hands there's occasionally a danger that the original becomes entirely unrecognisable: to my mind, central to this reworking of the Chaconne is Busoni's grandeur of vision, a quality that sometimes gets lost in the excitement of the moment. The drama is contained within the score itself, yet Colli sometimes adds to it needlessly, creating something overly Romantic. That said, there are many ravishing and compelling moments in his reading, and he has not only an epic technique but boundless imagination too. Just occasionally, though, I wanted him to rein things in a little.
Nevertheless, there's no doubt that Colli is one of the more original thinkers of his generation.
Source: Harriet Smith (gramophone.co.uk)
Cavatine – Claude Debussy, Francis Poulenc, Jean Françaix, Charles Koechlin, Olivier Messiaen
Cameron Crozman, cello
Philip Chiu, piano
Recorded October 25-27, 2018, Saint-Augustin Church, Mirabel, Québec, Canada
Released on January 25, 2019 by Atma Classique
Cavatine, the debut album of cellist Cameron Crozman and pianist Philip Chiu, explores the refined world of French music in the first half of the 20th century. Framed by the great Sonatas of Debussy and Poulenc, the programme includes lesser-known works by Messiaen, Koechlin, and Francaix. Together, they paint a vivid picture of the multitude of styles – from the impressionist to the surrealist – that defined the era. Described as a "mature artist with a profound musical imagination", (Toronto Concert Reviews), Cameron Crozman is being hailed as one of Canada's leading young cellists. Maintaining an active performance schedule in North America and Europe, engagements have taken Cameron to such prestigious venues as the Shanghai Oriental Arts Center, Berliner Philharmonie, Paris Philharmonie, and Canada's National Arts Centre. An avid chamber musician, Cameron Crozman is frequently invited to perform with world leading artists and ensembles. Philip Chiu concertizes extensively as one of Canada's most sought-after chamber musicians. Along with pianist Janelle Fund, he forms one of Canada's most exciting piano duos, the Fung-Chiu Duo.
Carl Orff: Carmina Burana – Live from the Forbidden City
Aida Garifullina, soprano
Toby Spence, tenor
Ludovic Tézier, baritone
Shanghai Spring Children's Choir
Shanghai Symphony Orchestra
Conductor: Long Yu
Recorded October 10, 2018, Forbidden City, Beijing
Released on January 18, 2019 by Deutsche Grammophon
In October 2018, record label Deutsche Grammophon celebrated its 120th birthday by hosting a spectacular concert at Beijing's Forbidden City (the first there since 1998) with their newly signed artists Shanghai Symphony Orchestra and maestro Long Yu. Top of the bill was a scintillating performance of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, a work that surely matches the Forbidden City for its exotic color and boldness of ambition. The gathered forces don't disappoint – Orff's astonishing, often bawdy music is reinforced with a strong, focused chorus and soloists who add genuine drama. Soprano Aida Garifullina is utterly thrilling, while tenor Toby Spence's roasting swan in "Olim lacus colueram" is deliciously sinister. The orchestral playing is big and bold.
The albums were chosen by the owner and blog editor of "Faces of Classical Music", Alexandros Arvanitakis.
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The Best Classical Albums of 2018 – By Zev Kane for WQXR
Santtu-Matias Rouvali – All the posts
Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra – All the posts