Tuesday, 14 July 2015

CD reviews - July 2015

Canadian pianist Louis Lortie has reached the fourth volume of his recordings of Chopin’s piano works, and for this latest release he again uses Nocturnes to vary the programme of the disc’s main genre focus, in this case the Waltzes.  He also doesn’t present the waltzes in chronological or numerical order, but favours a more logical order in terms of key relationships, so that the disc makes for a pleasurable programme for the listener.  Of all his genres, the Waltzes might initially appear to be the least profound – in fact Chopin only thought eight were worthy of publishing as proper ‘works’ in his lifetime.  Included here however are eleven further Waltzes published posthumously – of these, one (B150, which opens the disc) is considered spurious, and a further one (B46) is now considered to be probably by one of Chopin’s students. Lortie’s performances here emphasise the dance qualities of these short miniatures, of which only a couple top five minutes, and most are around two minutes long. He has a lightness of touch, even in the more virtuosic moments, such as in Op. 70 No. 1, never letting the rapid figurations get bogged down in any way. He uses rubato (a pulling about of the tempo) appropriately but never indulgently, and the tempi of the faster examples (such as the famous Minute Waltz’, Op. 64 No. 1, and the Grande Valse Brillante, Op. 18) are perfectly judged.  However, the downside of this focus on the dance means that one or two of the slower Waltzes feel slightly rushed – the darker A minor Waltz, Op. 34 No. 2, marked ‘lento’, for example, needs a bit more time to emphasise the mournful, mysterious outer sections.  Yet there are moments where the poignancy and delicacy of Chopin at his most deceptively simple really shine through. The five Nocturnes on offer here, towards the end of the programme, pick up on the darker atmosphere, particularly in Op. 32 No. 1, whose simple lyrical opening leads through darker moods to a strange, dramatic recitative ending.  The disc ends in a brighter mood, however, with the lilting ballad-like Op. 37 No. 2. A most interesting presentation of the Waltzes, with Lortie once again showing himself to be a thoughtful and insightful performer.

British conductor Sir Andrew Davis lives in Chicago where he conducts the Lyric Opera, but he must spend a lot of time in the air, as he also conducts the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the BBC SO and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, and it is with the last of these that he has released a live recording of an all-Strauss programme.  The disc opens with a lively performance of the swashbuckling tone poem, Don Juan. They performed this when they visited the Proms in London in 2014.  It was well-received then, and Davis certainly brings out the detail of this imaginatively (and challengingly for most instruments) scored piece here, letting the music tell the story, making this a great disc opener.  This is followed by Strauss’ sublime Four Last Songs, with soprano Erin Wall.  Her voice is beautifully rich without being too heavy or dark, and September is particularly enchanting here. The rest of the disc is given over to Also Sprach Zaruthustra, his most ambitious tone poem.  Despite the somewhat episodic writing here, the work has symphonic proportions, and Davis shows that he fully understands the architecture, giving perfect sense to the frequent changes of mood.  The orchestra are on fine form, and as in the Don Juan, they rise to the challenges of Strauss’ writing. The final sequence of alternating wind and strings quiet chords are perfectly placed – all the more impressive in a live recording.  As the first of a promised Strauss cycle of recordings, this certainly bodes well.

Chandos have gathered together their recordings of Sir Malcolm Arnold’s (1921-2006) nine Symphonies in a box set re-release.  The recordings include the first six symphonies performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the late Richard Hickox, and the final three from the BBC Philharmonic under Rumon Gamba.  Arnold’s music was somewhat unfairly dismissed by many in his lifetime, with many not able to separate his more substantial and ‘serious’ output from his more popular works, particularly his extensive filmscore output.  Yet the symphonies, which span most of his career from 1949 when the Symphony No. 1 was composed, right through to 1986 when he finished the Symphony No. 9. The early symphonies show influences of Sibelius and Mahler, yet very soon Arnold develops his own particular style, and the symphonies become progressively darker, and more disturbing, somewhat reflecting Arnold’s own difficult mental health.  It is perhaps not surprising that the Symphony No. 5, the most disturbing, labelled by one critic as ‘a study in disintegration’, was apparently Arnold’s favourite. His mental health deteriorated significantly in the early eighties, and he pretty much stopped composing altogether from 1982 to 1986, and it was only thanks to the help of his companion and carer, Anthony Day, that he was able to regain his creative inspiration to compose the Symphony No. 9. It is a particularly desolate creation, and it struggled to receive a first performance, owing partly to the delay in its completion, but also to its stark, bare scoring.  Yet it is a work of remarkable if uncomfortable intensity, and in many ways makes perfect sense in the context of the progression through the symphonies, which makes this box set particularly powerful.  The recordings are exemplary throughout, with the LSO under Hickox perhaps achieving a tad more intensity than Gamba and the BBC Phil – it would have been great to hear Hickox perform the ninth. This is an important digitally remastered collection, and hopefully will add further to the belated reappraisal of this troubled and misunderstood composer.

(Edited versions of some of these reviews first appeared in GScene, July 2015)

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