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Recording

Berlin Harpsichord Concertos

Philippe Grisvard, Ensemble Diderot, Johannes Pramsohler
77:45
Audax Records ADX11211

This is a welcome recording of some unjustly neglected music.  Great composers cast long shadows and, in this case, those who overlapped with J.S. Bach and his son C.P.E. have not always had much of a look in. Grisvard and the Ensemble Diderot make an impressive start at remedying that situation with this recording of concertos by four composers who had strong connections to the Berlin court of Frederick the Great. They have deliberately avoided C.P.E. Bach in favour of introducing music by his near contemporaries. Peter Wollny’s very informative sleeve notes give short biographies and provide the context for the music. Christoph Nichelmann, Carl Heinrich Graun and Christoph Schaffrath were close contemporaries of C.P.E.; Ernst Wilhelm Wolf was twenty years younger. Nichelmann was a pupil in the Leipzig Thomasschule in the early 1730s and later served as second harpsichordist in Berlin for a time, until a personality clash with C.P.E. led to him leaving that court. Graun is mainly known for his operas and a Passion composed for Berlin. Schaffrath worked for Frederick as crown prince, and later for his sister Anna Amalia. Wolf did not actually work in Berlin – he served in Leipzig and Weimar – but came under the Prussian capital’s musical influence through the mediation of Georg Benda. 

The music draws clear inspiration from both Bachs, with a strong sense of Sturm und Drang clear from the first movement of Nichelmann’s D minor concerto which opens the disc. Schaffrath’s first movement is a muscular fugue in C minor, starting in the strings but later developed in an extended solo passage by the keyboard. Ritornello form predominates throughout these works, with extended solo passages for harpsichord, especially so in Wolf’s somewhat later concerto. The dialogue between soloist and strings is greatly assisted by the recording engineers, who have produced an excellent balance. Although there are only five string players, their playing and the recording quality tricks the ear into thinking that there are several more players in ripieno passages. Grisvard plays on a Mietke copy by Christoph Kern which has a full rich sound and good registrational capabilities. Cadenzas survive for the Nichelmann and Schaffrath works; Grisvard has developed his own for the other two which sound entirely idiomatic.  His playing throughout is both confident and nuanced, showing a real understanding of the style of this transitional period, with its predictabilities and idiosyncrasies. This comes across as very attractive music, played with energy and plenty of forward drive. These performances really whet the appetite for more of this music and the recording can be highly recommended.

Noel O’Regan

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Recording

Haydn: Symphonies 15 – La Reine

Kammerorchester Basel conducted by Giovanni Antonini
66:29
Alpha Classics Alpha 696

Most enthusiasts will by now surely need no introduction to this treasurable series of the complete Haydn symphonies, a project planned to reach completion by 2032, thus marking the 300th anniversary of the composer’s birth. For those that might be making their first acquaintance with the series, the recordings are divided between the Kammerorchester Basel and Giovanni Antonini’s own Il Giardino Armonico and is intended to eventually include Haydn’s entire symphonic output.

From the outset, the performances have been marked by a rare and felicitous combination of strongly incisive playing of diamantine clarity combined with warm sensitivity.  In the present set of performances one need only, for example, bring to mind the celebratory opening movement of Symphony No 50, with its trumpets and timpani cutting through the texture like a sabre to illustrate the first point, while the delicacy of the light-footed Romance of No. 85 serves ideally as an example of just how sensitive and elegant Antonini’s direction can be.

The symphonies on the present CD most obviously have in common that all three have a slow introduction, but there are more subtle links, too.  The earliest is No 50 in C, a fully scored work with a pair of trumpets and timpani dating from 1773. Its first two movements are believed to have originally formed  part of the now-lost incidental music for Der Götterrath, which forms the prologue to Philemon und Baucis, first given in the marionette theatre at Esterháza for the Empress Maria Theresa. The Andante moderato (ii) is notable for its richly warm colouring – here beautifully captured – with obbligato cello doubling the melodic line, while the Minuet brings back the trumpets and drums for one of those dance movements you find it difficult to imagine being actually danced.  Symphony No 62 in D probably owes its existence to a familiar modern problem – building works overrunning their completion date. In this case, it was the new theatre at Esterháza that opened in 1780 on St Theresa’s Day, the name day of the empress. It had been intended to open with Haydn’s new La fedelta premiata but the elaborate stage machinery not having been installed it was replaced with a play. In order that his Kapellmeister should still be represented, Prince Nicolaus apparently asked Haydn for a new symphony. Haydn obliged with the present hybrid work, one with a history too complex to go into here. Suffice it to say the unusual Allegretto that forms its second movement is a remarkably individual passage that proceeds into curiously mysterious territory.

Much the best known of these symphonies is No. 85 in B flat, one of the six so-called ‘Paris Symphonies’ (no’s 82-87) probably written in 1785 as a commission from the famous Concert de la Loge Olympique. It acquired its nickname ‘La Reine’ very early on, a reference often mistakenly attributed to Maria Theresa, but in fact referring to her daughter Marie Antoinette, who had become Queen of France in 1774. The opening Adagio – Vivace provides a perfect example of the supreme merits of the mix of robust energy and lyricism Antonini brings to his Haydn, the lovely cantabile oboe solo that dominates the secondary idea here splendidly played. And there could be no better illustration of the deliciously featherweight lightness of touch he obtains from his players than the opening of the Presto finale before it bursts into forceful operatic drama to carry the symphony surging to its conclusion.

This is quite simply another splendid addition to a series at present bidding fair to be the set of Haydn symphonies.

Brian Robins

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Recording

Vivaldi: Concerti per violino XI

‘Per Anna Maria’
Vivaldi Edition vol. 71
Fabio Biondi, Europa Galante
62:54
naïve OP 7368

Whoever it was who infamously quipped that Vivaldi had written the same concerto several hundred times clearly had never heard the Red Priest’s Concerto in D RV 229 – I just about jumped out of my seat when it started! The double-stopping soloist did more than rouse the band with the dramatic opening bars. Even if there is (inevitably, given that music of the period was largely dominated by ritornello form) a degree of repetitiveness across a large number of his works, the six concertos on this wonderful recording (together with an ornamented version of a slow movement re-used in another) demonstrate the composer’s richness of imagination and command both of his instrument and musical form. All in major keys, the solo parts are all that remains of one source – a volume of 31 pieces (including 24 by Vivaldi) that belonged to one of the Pietà’s stars, Anna Maria. The wonderful Fabio Biondi and his band, Europa Galante (3322 strings and continuo), bring energy and sparkle, and reflection and pathos in equal measure for some exemplary performances of this repertoire. The typically informative booklet note sets the scene for a new appreciation (on my part, at least) for the women behind the grilles of the ospedali…

Brian Clark

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Recording

Mozart: Piano Concertos

K238, 242, 246
Robert Levin, tangent piano, Ya-Fei Chuang, fortepiano, Academy of Ancient Music, Laurence Cummings conductor & harpsichord
60:43
AAM AAM044

I referred to this performance of the three-piano concerto, K242 in my review of its previous incarnation in the series in December 2023. On the earlier disc, it was played by husband and wife team Robert Levin and Ya-Fei Chuang in the adaptation for two pianos made by Mozart, the third piano part being near-redundant (it was composed for the young daughter of one of Mozart’s patrons). As I mentioned at the time – and please refer back to the earlier review for a more detailed introduction to the work – the idea of doing it again in its original version seems to be carrying the concept of the intégrale to extreme lengths. Ah, but there’s a gimmick (or fresh idea, if you prefer) here too, for the performance is given on three different instruments, with Levin playing a modern reproduction of a tangent piano built by Spath and Schmahl in 1794, his wife a copy of an Andreas Stein fortepiano of 1787. Oddly, given the usual sumptuous booklet provided by AAM, the harpsichord played by Laurence Cummings is not identified, hardly a major problem in this case given the instrument is virtually inaudible for much of the time.

The line-up is of course one that Mozart would never have employed and thus rather pointless, though Cliff Eisen argues for it in his usual scholarly fashion. This is particularly pertinent given that the sonority of the tangent piano is not particularly appealing, its upper register being weak and thin, to my ears considerably less attractive than the fuller-bodied, mellow sound of Chuang’s Stein. Unsurprisingly the performance is not greatly different from that on the earlier disc, as the relative timings suggest. As with that performance, the most satisfying and sensitive playing comes in the central Adagio, with, dare I say it, Mrs Levin just edging it for expressive playing over her one-time teacher when she takes up the theme. Needless to say, Levin’s spontaneous extemporary embellishment is as much a pleasure as ever; moments such as the playful second return to the rondo theme of the finale are sheer delight.

Both K238 in B flat and K 246 in F (Numbers 6 and 7) were composed in Salzburg during the first half of 1776. They mark the end of Mozart’s apprenticeship as a piano concerto composer; his next essay in the form would to be the Concerto in E flat, K271, dating from the following year, his first outright masterpiece in the form. Nevertheless, K238 in particular is an especially lovable work, with a slow movement that is the first in the long line of dreamy, moon-lit andantes, here played with real sensitivity. I sensed the opening Allegro aperto (meaning ‘brightly’) was taken a trifle brusquely, but it is slower than that of Malcolm Bilson (Archiv), a warning of the dangers of paying too much attention to timings when other factors may also be involved. The final is spirited and emphatic,  Levin’s imaginative treatment of the final appearance of the rondo theme again joyously improvised. K246, written for Countess Lützow, makes fairly modest demands on the soloist and is less distinctive, though the thrusting energy of the opening movement is compelling. The rondo finale is again played here in slightly too staccato a style for my taste, but otherwise the performance is unexceptionable.

Throughout Levin is capably accompanied by a smallish body from the AAM. As with previous issues since this series was resurrected the sound is not ideal, being a little restricted through speakers, although less so through headphones. If my calculations are correct there’s now just one to go in this valuable series.

Brian Robins

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Recording

Joseph Martin Kraus: Overtures

THERESIA, directed by Claudio Astronio
67:44
cpo 555 579-2

Prepare to have your attention seized from the very first bars of this amazing release! There are eleven openings on the programme, from operas (as you would expect) to cantatas for birthdays and funerals. Pretty much an exact contemporary of Mozart, Kraus (who died a year later) was the master of Sturm und Drang, but more than that, he was an excellent orchestrator, searching just the right timbre for his dramatic gestures – I am not exaggerating when I confess to having been tense throughout the equally excellent THERESIA’s rendition of the prologue to the composer’s “Æneas i Cartago”. The overtures to Acts 1 and 5 of that massive work also feature – the exemplary booklet note by Kraus expert Bertil van Boer explains that the programme is essentially a musical palindrome of keys with what he considers to be the epitome of Kraus’s writing in this style, the opening to Act 1. It is unbelievable to think that this outstanding recording on period instruments is the work of a youth orchestra. Of course, the members (whose names cover most European languages except English, of course… another Brexit benefit?!) have studied long and hard and obviously have talent oozing from their pores, yet still it is astounding that they reach such heights. The recording engineers have done well to capture all that youthful energy, which they certainly put to good use!

I am happy to report that the booklet also predicts more recordings on cpo from THERESIA – if they are half as good as this one, I will be more than impressed!

Brian Clark

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Recording

Mozart: Piano Concertos

K242, K315f, K365
Robert Levin & Ya-Fei Chuang fortepiano, Bojan Čičić violin, Academy of Ancient Music, conducted by Laurence Cummings
60:48
AAM AAM043

Two reviews of the previous issue in this revived series appeared on EMR earlier in 2023, mine in July and that of my colleague D James Ross in October. Well, why not? It’s always interesting to read different reviews of the same concert or CD. On that occasion Ross was rather more enthusiastic than me about an issue that curiously included no music played on the piano (or of course in this case fortepiano). Both Ross and I provided an introduction to the resumption of a series that it seemed for some years was likely to remain incomplete, so I’ll simply refer interested readers to one (or both!) of those reviews.

There is no general shortage of fortepianos on the present CD, though there is a shortage of one such instrument in the case of K242 in F, which is the concerto for three pianos, but here played on a version for two, which Mozart himself later adopted as being more practical. The unusual combination of three concertante instruments  – at least in Salzburg, where it was written, if less so in Paris and Mannheim – is explained by it having been composed in 1776 for one of Mozart’s patrons, the Countess Lodron and her two young daughters, age 15 and 11. It conjures up a charming domestic scene, though the countess must have had a salon of substantial size to accommodate three pianos and an orchestra that includes oboes and horns. Not surprisingly most of the leading material is assigned to the first pianist but the demands made on the second are not far behind. Cast in the usual three movements, the most substantial expressively is the central Adagio, the poetic yearning of which suggests a later phase of Mozart’s life. The performance by Levin and Ya-Fei Chuang, his wife, is also at its best in this movement, finding sensitivity not always apparent elsewhere, though the performance is as fluent and agile as always from this source. According to the beautifully produced hard-cover booklet the three-piano version will be included in a future issue, which is surely pushing completeness to the limit.

The only query surrounding the more familiar two-piano Concerto in E flat, K365/316a is a date of composition, which as with the greatest of Mozart’s concertante works, the Sinfonia concertante for violin and viola in E flat, K364/320d, is unknown.  Both belong to Mozart’s final years in Salzburg, c 1780, but no purpose for their composition is known and the autograph scores are lost. The performance by the Levins again has a  pleasingly natural flow, though the rondo finale opens with a somewhat graceless, clipped orchestral introduction and a speed that could with advantage have been steadier. But there is considerable wit and sparkle in the playing and the wit and touches of rubato from the soloists, not to mention the ever-present fascination of Levin’s renowned improvisatory embellishments stand the performances in good stead. Cumming’s somewhat four-square accompaniment here as throughout again reveal him as a less idiomatic Mozartian than was Christopher Hogwood in the earlier Florilegium issues.

The final work is a fragment from another concertante work, a Concerto for piano and violin in D, KAnh56 (315f), one of a number of works Mozart for one reason or another stopped working on. This one dates from 1778 and his stay in Mannheim on his return journey home from Paris. From a letter to his father we know it was intended for the violinist Ignaz Fränzl, leader of a new ‘academy’ there, but it breaks off after 120 bars, an extraordinary fact given that the work was planned on an unusually ambitious scale not only as to scoring, which includes horns, trumpets and timpani, but scale, the opening orchestral ritornello being of such imposing length and grandeur that it caused Einstein to consider Mozart’s inability to complete the work a major loss. The opening Allegro is given in a reconstruction by Robert Levin, but is disappointing in that the violin tone of Bojan Čičić, at least as recorded, sounds thin. Overall this is a fascinating issue that those collecting the series will want to obtain, but it doesn’t convince completely.

Brian Robins

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Recording

Torelli | Perti | Pollarolo | Colonna – Concertos and Cantatas

Nuria Rial soprano, Kammerorchester Basel directed by Julia Schröder violin
57:29
DHM 19658813432

‘For the most part, nothing can be heard in their [the Italians’] music apart from a consistently elaborated basso continuo, often consisting of a kind of barrage of chords, with arpeggios added to throw dust in the eyes of those who are no judges of such things’. What was true for the Mercure galant in 1713 is equally as true of the 2020s, with the exception that the contagion is now widely spread throughout early music and not just applicable solely to the Italians. I’ve opened in this rather unusual way to highlight that the present recording provides one of the most severe examples of theorbo-itis I’ve encountered, with inappropriate twanging, passaggi, bangs, and arpeggiated janglings throughout the performances. Especially damaging examples appear in ‘Aurae sacrae amati ardores’, a charming solo motet by Pollarolo (c. 1653-1723). Both its arias (it ends in typical motet-fashion with a virtuosic Alleluia) feature lovely cantabile writing for the soloist, here the lovely warm, but pure voice of the enchanting Spanish soprano, Nuria Rial. Both however are virtually ruined by the distraction of the theorbist, who seems unaware that the arias are intended to evoke tranquility and contemplation by twanging away as if playing a concerto, masking the lyrical line of Rial’s voice. The result sounds ridiculous and is totally unmusical.

The foregoing would alone be enough to stop me wanting to hear the CD again, but given that the orchestral playing is excessively mannered there is little to attract any but the most tolerant of listeners. Allegros are invariably taken too fast, the performances skating over the surface with clipped chords and meaninglessly superficial runs. Slower movements are played in a mannered style in which I suppose some may find elements of sprezzatura and certainly there’s some virtuosic solo violin playing by director, Julia Schröder, though I don’t care much for her rather thin tone.

For those interested, that might be more forgiving than the present writer, a word or two about the programme. The instrumental part is devoted to four of the concertos from Torelli’s Concerti grossi, op 8. Composed in 1709, but only published posthumously, they are, like Corelli’s famous op 6 of five years later, intended to make a grand sonorous effect, with the body of concertante strings creating breadth and depth. That doesn’t happen here because of the clipped phrasing and the solo contribution being dominated by the solo violin. The other vocal solo items sung by Rial are a brief scena comprising a fluid alternation of air and recitar cantando from Giovanni Colonna’s oratorio Salomone amante (Bologna, 1679) and a spirited cantata, ‘San Tomaso d’Aquino’ by Giovanni Perti (1661-1756). In these, there is some enchanting singing. Rial demonstrates not only lovely cantabile lines but impressive agility in passaggi and ornamentation, though regrettably she has no trill and her words might have been projected with greater clarity.

Sadly for all the quality of the singing the disc is a non-starter for the reasons given above. A pity given that the repertoire is unusual and of considerable interest.

Brian Robins

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Recording

Early European and Hungarian Dances

Capella Savaria, Zsolt Kalló
54:06
Hungaroton HCD 32881

Founded in 1981, the Hungarian period instrument ensemble Capella Savaria are veterans in the field and have assembled an impressive discography over the forty years of their existence. Their playing combines precision and energy, and these are the predominant features of this recording of Telemann’s Ouverture-Suite in B flat major ‘Les Nations’, in which the composer characterises the nations of Europe in appropriate movements. The ever-imaginative Telemann warms to the task, and produces some strikingly original music which suggests that he had some passing acquaintance with folk music from Turkey, Switzerland and Russia. The transition into the second half of the programme, which opens with a couple of dance movements by Hungarian composers of the early 19th century – essentially concert music with a slight Hungarian flavour – is a bit of a jolt. Soon we are into more distinctive traditional Hungarian melodies and dances from a selection of 19th-century manuscripts. With their instinct for their native music, we could expect no better guide to this material than Capella Savaria, and they find the ideal blend of classical ensemble and gypsy folk band. I recalled the recordings of earlier Hungarian material made by the late great Rene Clemencic, and this CD has some of the flamboyance and smouldering energy with which he invested his accounts of his native music. In the final analysis, this had the feeling of two very different programmes sharing a CD. I have heard more imaginative accounts of the Telemann, and in a way I would have preferred a whole CD of the later fascinating Hungarian material. I hope this isn’t as annoying for the performers as the suggestion from a member of one of our audiences, after we had finished an intense programme of Renaissance music lightened with an encore of Ronald Binge’s Elizabethan Serenade, that we should perform a whole programme of ‘that kind of music’! Anyway, the music from Pest, Nagyszombat and the Poszony Manuscripts has considerable charm and character, and Capella Savaria clearly enjoy playing it.

D. James Ross

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Recording

Mozart : Piano Concertos K107s K175 K336

Robert Levin, Academy of Ancient Music, Laurence Cummings
62:33
AAM 042

The Academy of Ancient Music’s complete recordings of the Mozart piano concertos with Robert Levin is a project begun in 1994 under the direction of Christopher Hogwood and resumed in the 2020s, now under the direction of Laurence Cummings, in which the latest scholarship is combined with state-of-the-art period performance. For volume 10, we return to Mozart’s earliest essays in the genre, a movement from Nannerl’s Music Book reconstructed by Levin, the composer’s three concertos K107 based on J C Bach Sonatas and his first completely original Concerto K175 no 5. Famous for his quest for authenticity as a keyboard player specialising in the music of the 18th century, Levin’s flair for embellishment is given full rein here – I remember him explaining to me at a concert (only partly in jest) that he had the musical notes in front of him on his piano mainly so that he knew what to avoid in his embellished versions. The radical approach of this project is further manifest in the fact that no piano features in the making of the CD! In the extensive and lavishly presented programme notes, Cliff Eisen makes a very cogent case for the K175 concerto having been intended for performance on organ, and this imaginative piece flamboyantly scored by the young Mozart fresh from a visit to Mannheim for horns, trumpets, timpani, oboes, bassoon and strings works very well as an organ concerto. The solo instrument is the recently restored George England in Christ’s Chapel in Alleyn’s College of God’s Gift, Dulwich, which offers a range of characteristic stops which bring this lovely music to life. If the geography of the chapel just occasionally takes the edge off the crispness of this performance compared to an account on fortepiano, the colour palette more than compensates. In similar vein for the G major fragment and the K107 concerti Levin very convincingly employs a harpsichord, a 2013 copy by Alan Gotto of an instrument of around 1770 by Johann Heinrich Silbermann of Strasbourg. It is interesting that having composed them in his teens in 1773, Mozart continued to perform these concertos on tour, clearly enjoying their freshness and originality. The influence of Mannheim and the revolutionary Stamitzes is never far from this music, while J C Bach’s sonatas provide a useful framework and springboard for the developing young composer. Levin and the AAM provide beautifully nuanced accounts, crisp and fresh but also thoughtful and profound. For a brief bonus track Levin returns to the organ for no 17 of Mozart’s K336 church sonatas, a set of effervescent works in which I have observed elsewhere Mozart’s originality found perhaps its most unfettered expression. With its rippling cadenza and its dynamic interaction between soloist and ensemble, it provides the perfect sign-off for this excellent CD.

D. James Ross

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Recording

Haydn No.14 – L’Impériale

Kammerorchester Basel, conducted by Giovanni Antonini
77:07
Alpha Classics 694

Giovanni Antonini’s Haydn cycle, with his own Il Giardino Armonico and the Kammerorchester Basel alternating, here turns its attention to three symphonies plus an alternative finale for No 53 in D. It is from the nickname for that symphony, a 19th-century acquisition, that the programme takes it theme. All three symphonies are celebratory in character, with trumpets and timpani to enhance the grandeur, though they were a later addition in the case of No 53. The earliest, No 33 in C, is a pre-Esterháza work and is indeed with its twin No 32 in C the first of Haydn’s symphonies to include trumpets and drums. It was composed during the short period Haydn was in the employment of Count Morzin (c 1759-60). Cast in four movements, it opens with a Vivace that brings some champagne-like sparkle and agility from the superb Basel strings, a tranquil Andante scored only for strings, a pompous Minuet that unlike many of Haydn’s remains firmly in the ballroom, and an Allegro finale full of quirky humour made much of by Antonini and his orchestra. Oddly only passing mention of the symphony is made in the otherwise informative notes, suggesting that perhaps its inclusion to make for the unusually long playing time was a late decision.

One of the ever-increasing problems with Antonini’s cycle for a reviewer is to find something new to say about performances that up to this point have been remarkably consistent, whichever orchestra he is directing. Both produce superb playing for him, with unflagging dynamic energy brought to outer movements, insightful sensitivity to slower ones, while the bucolic extroversion that characterises many of the minuets is consistently infectious. Perhaps question marks may arise over a fast tempo, such as the secondary idea in the opening Vivace of No 53. Perhaps a little more warmth might have been brought to the odd cantabile movement, though that is certainly not the case here where the Adagio assai of No 54 – the only true slow movement on the disc and one of the longest Haydn ever wrote – takes on a mesmerizingly nocturnal mood.

Symphonies 53 and 54 both belong to the Esterháza period. No 53, first performed in 1778, is – to put it inelegantly –something of a dog’s dinner of a work. In addition to the later trumpets and strings mentioned above, it also originally lacked the boldly imposing slow introduction. There are three different finales, though one is considered spurious. The one given here is a Presto dated 1777. It is believed by some Haydn scholars to have been composed originally for the fourth part of the marionette opera – which were extremely popular at Esterháza – Genovefens, although Robbins Landon is of the opinion that Haydn, responsible for all dramatic performances there, just assembled the music for it. It’s a movement that juxtaposes pomp with an extremely attractive and more lyrical secondary idea.

Those who have investigated this series will need no urging to obtain this latest addition, in which they will find three less familiar symphonies given in performances that happily maintain the extraordinarily high standard established from the first issue in the series. Otherwise, anyone starting here has a great deal of catching up to do!

Brian Robins