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Recording

Mendelssohn: String Symphonies Vol. 1

L’Orfeo Barockorchester, Michi Gaigg
64:37
cpo 777 942-2

One’s initial reaction to seeing this CD listed in a catalogue might be, “Why is a self-styled Barockorchester playing Mendelssohn?” In fact, that pedigree is precisely what makes this recording such a success – the fact that Michi Gaigg and company come to the music from the past rather than the future (as it were!) means that the unfathomably young Mendelssohn’s take on writing ensemble pieces for four-part strings (which he then accompanied from the keyboard!) makes total sense. Think C. P. E. Bach (though with perhaps displaying a little more of his father’s strict contrapuntal control than the original) discovering 19th-century harmony; arguably the only discernible difference is that Mendelssohn already makes clear distinction between the three movements of each symphony.

Some may wonder why the six works on this first of two discs were not recorded in numerical order, but it would be difficult to argue that this marvellous ensemble could have chosen a more dramatic opening than Symphony IV! The CD cover shows how children Mendelssohn’s age should have been entertaining themselves rather than composing such intense and accomplished music, and makes his prodigious talents all the more remarkable. Buy this and start saving for the next installment!

Brian Clark

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Kalliwoda: Violin Concertinos · Overtures

Ariadne Daskalakis, Kölner Akademie, Michael Alexander Willens
57:30
cpo 777 692-2
Overtures Nos. 3, 7, 10, Concertinos 1 & 5

[dropcap]O[/dropcap]nce again this month it is hats off to Willens, his excellent Kölner Akademie, Deutschlandfunk, Kunststiftung NRW and – of course – cpo for taking us on another voyage of discovery. Anyone who plays violin will be familiar with Kalliwoda’s name, but other EMR regulars may not be – born in Prague in 1801, by the age of 15 he was already hailed by his teachers as “a superb soloist” with “excellent abilities in composition”. He became a touring virtuoso but a chance stopover in Donaueschingen saw him appointed Kapellmeister. Music-wise, think Spohr and Rode crossed with hints of Gilbert and Sullivan – I do not mean that disparangingly, but rather in the sense of Kalliwoda’s ready facility with melody, in other words, had he been alive today, he would be described as composer of earworms, so catchy are the tunes he writes. The three overtures last under ten minutes (the first one under five, actually!) but they are full of drama – the timpani stroke at the opening of No. 7 (misnumbered in the inside of the booklet, where it appears there are two No. 3s – which is the only reason the stars below are not five across the board), must have startled its original audience. Here, too, there are dark premonitions of Brahms and even Tchaikovsky. The two solo violin works are more substantial and beautifully played by Ariadne Daskalakis, her violin sometimes sounding more like a viola in the lower reaches, but with some exquisite finesse at the other end of the instrument. Compliments to everyone involved in this enterprising project. I’m already looking forward to where Willens & Co. take us next!

Brian Clark

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Recording

Schumann: Piano Concerto & Piano Trio op. 80

Alexander Melnikov fortepiano, Isabelle Faust violin, Jean-Guihen Queyras violoncello, Freiberger Barockorchester, Pablo Heras-Casado
57:51
Harmonia Mundi HMC 902198

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]his is the second of three recordings from this team that will pair the three piano trios with the concertos written for each of the instruments in the trio. Partnered by the ever-alert Freiberg Barockorchester (86543 strings), Alexander Melnikov’s performance of possibly the best-loved of the concertos takes one by the scruff of the neck and gives a good shake – there is nothing nostalgic about his reading. I have read another review in which the critic said he would rather hear Schumann than Melnikov interpreting Schumann; I find that not only a rather vacuous thing to say (isn’t ever performance, even the first one, an interpretation?), but also an insult to these wonderful musicians and their fresh exploration of Schumann’s score. Inevitably period instruments bring a clarity to the palette that reveal new details in a score that caused its composer no end of difficulty.

Faust, Queyras and Melnikov have embraced gut strings and a period piano for their trio performances, too. To me, this brings a richer colour to the strings and lightens the texture of the piano part to a degree that once again these seem like new works. The slow movement of op. 80, “Mit innigem Ausdruck” in the outlandish key of D flat major, is absolutely gorgeous – the strings dialoging beautifully against the backdrop of the piano’s figuration. The “Nicht zu rasch” finale is a tour de force from composer and performers.

I was not sure how a CD juxtaposing an orchestral work with a chamber piece would work, but it does. The sound worlds are so different, and yet the calibre of performance is maintained. It is impossible (for me) to fault a splendid achievement.

Brian Clark

PS I was reviewing a downloaded version which came without the DVD that is bundled with the CD, so I am unable to comment on that aspect of the package.

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Recording

Songs of Love, War and Melancholy

The operatic fantasies of Jacques-François Gallay
Anneke Scott natural horn, Steven Devine piano [Erard 1851], Lucy Crowe soprano
66:41
Resonus RES10153

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]his is one of two discs this month of which I have to say, ‘This is the most enormous fun’. It is the third of three recitals of Gallay’s music which Anneke Scott has recorded with support from the Gerald Finzi Trust and when I’ve finished writing this I’m going to order the other two. In the 1830s and 1840s Gallay was essentially Mr Horn in Paris, taking the technique of hand-horn playing to frankly unimaginable and barely practical heights – this repertoire would be still be hard with the full panoply of modern valves on the instrument.

But Anneke Scott is equal to it all – bravura does not even begin to describe her playing. The music is based on material from operas by Bellini and Donizetti which Gallay would have played in his position as solo horn of the Théâtre Italien, and is a mixture of moreorless straight transcription and more free treatments. Although her French diction is not of the very best, the three items in which Lucy Crowe joins add another dimension to the listener’s pleasure – the soprano/horn duet cadenza on track 3 is delicious. The booklet is excellent but in English only – German and French speakers must download from the Resonus website. And I must not fail to mention Steven Devine’s playing (on an 1851 Érard) of the quasi-orchestral piano parts – a masterly blend of élan and deference. Time to go shopping. I enjoyed this – a lot.

David Hansell

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Louis Spohr: Symphonies 7 & 9

NDR Radiophilharmonie, Howard Griffiths
70:48
cpo 777 746-2
+ “Erinnerung an Marienbad” (waltzes for small orchestra, op. 89)

[dropcap]L[/dropcap]ouis Spohr is perhaps best known as the composer of music for his own instrument, the violin. These symphonies (the 7th premiered in 1842 and the 9th from 1850) reveal that he had a far broader imagination than his tuneful and dramatic concertos suggest; the former is scored for two “orchestras” (representing–  in the simplest terms – good and evil) and the latter (which may be autobiographical) is subtitled “Die Jahreszeiten” which starts with Autumn! I requested a review of this disc since, as part of a complete series (and an extended discography from the record company), it represents the current state of performance practice in this repertoire. The recording of the 7th symphony is telling – the smaller of the two orchestras (“the divine in human life”) is beautifully captured (as is the smaller ensemble in the disc’s filler, a series of waltzes), with the solo strings and delicate woodwinds nicely balanced; “the earthly in human life” on the other hand is overpowered to a large degree by a brass section who simply swamp the detail (not an uncommon experience in performances by large orchestras). This was perhaps not so much of a problem in the other symphony because there was no juxtaposition of two ensembles and the ear became used to the more uniform sound. I wonder if period instruments – and a different approach to producing blankets of sound in the brass? – might help to reveal the subtleties of Spohr’s textures. That said, are there any period bands working in this area at all nowadays?

Brian Clark

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Niels Gade: Chamber works Vol. 1

Ensemble MidtVest
62:23
cpo 777 164-2
Piano Trio in F, op. 42, String Sextet in E flat, op. 44 & early version of op. 44/i

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]his is the first volume in a series to be dedicated to all of Gade’s chamber music, sponsored – apart from state and local government funding – by the “friends of the ensemble”. As Finn Egeland Hansen’s interesting booklet note explains, the repertoire is dominated by strings (there is only one work that does not feature the violin!) As well as five works for string quartet, he wrote a quintet and an octet, as well as the sextet on the present CD. Completed in 1863, it seems not to have satisfied Gade and, as well as amending to movements 2 to 4, he composed an entirely new first movement the following year. In the name of completeness, the original version is also included. The piano trio that fills the remainder of the disc shares various characteristics – the “slow” movement (in both cases and Andantino) is placed third, after a scherzo and trio in five sections; both have elements reminiscent of Mendelssohn’s “Midsummernight’s Dream” or his octet, though the sextet has the intensity and rich harmonies of Brahms, whose first sextet appeared only a few years earlier. Although they play on modern instruments, Ensemble MidtVest embrace all the positive elements of the HIP creed – the texture is clear so all the individual voices are audible, no one part dominates the sound. Gade’s music is tuneful and readily accessible – on this evidence, Ensemble MidtVest’s series can only attract more admirers.

Brian Clark

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Beethoven and the art of arrangement

Ensemble DeNOTE
69:07
Omnibus Classics CC5007
Grand Trio op. 38 (after the Septet op. 20) & Piano Quartet op. 16 (after quintet for piano and winds)

Following the 18th-century tradition of arranging larger-scale compositions for chamber ensemble, we have on this disc Beethoven’s own arrangement of the six-movement Septet op. 20, which he calls Grand Trio op. 38, and a lost quintet for piano and winds arranged as a piano quartet, op. 16. Many such arrangements tend to lose their instrumental colour, which no doubt is why we hear so little of Salomon’s arrangements of Haydn’s London symphonies nowadays. Here the Septet arrangement is dominated by the mellow tone of the Jane Booth’s period clarinet and (presumably a copy of) a Viennese-sounding fortepiano played by John Irving. The keyboard part naturally has much of the work to do, leaving the cello line more or less intact. The less well-known piano quartet (for string trio and fortepiano) is performed by Marcus Barcham-Stevens, Peter Collyer and Ruth Alford. Such is the ensemble’s attention to period ‘authenticity’ that the pitch used is A=430, and the keyboard tuning to a suitable Classical period temperament, which adds to the subtlety of the exquisite fortepiano playing. The string playing is always stylish, and free from excessive vibrato. The booklet, all in English, gives a general account of the background of the works and extensive performers’ biographies.

Ian Graham-Jones

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András Schiff plays Schubert

Brodmann fortepiano c. 1820
145:43 (2 CDs)
ECM Records 481 1572
Sonatas in G D894 & B flat D960, Moments musicaux D780, Impromptus D935, Ungarische Melodie D817, Allegretto in c D915

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he two discs inside this simple cardboard box come in blank white card covers. It took my simple intelligence a while to fathom out which disc was which, before I realised that there was one small centimetre long stripe on one side of one cover, and two on the other! I did wonder what sort of over-zealous economy drive might have necessitated this. Another, more obvious means of distinguishing which disc was which and which way to open the cardboard (let alone what items were on each disc) might have got your reviewer off to a better start. There were few economies evident in the booklet, however, with its 40 pages in both German and English. Schiff gives an account of his “conversion” to HIP and an account (with a photo) of his instrument, a Viennese fortepiano by Franz Brodmann c. 1820. There are reproductions of facsimile pages, together with 14 pages of notes on the music by Mischa Donat. The only thing lacking (a minor point) was the total disc timings. Besides the two sonatas, the gentle G Major and Schubert’s last keyboard work, the great B flat sonata, the recording includes the six Moments Musicaux (op. 94) complete, but only the second set of four Impromptus (op. 142), together with two miscellaneous pieces, a Hungarian Melody (D. 780) and an Allegretto in C minor (D. 915). The gentle, mellow quality of the instrument is evident from the start, even in the fortissimo climaxes, and the use of the una corda and moderator pedals on the instrument is particularly effective. For those who appreciate the subtleties that the best of these historical instruments of the period can produce, this is a performance to be treasured.

Ian Graham-Jones

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Weber: Silvana

Michaela Kaune Mechthilde, Ines Krapp Clärchen, Ferdinand von Bothmer Graf Rudolf, Jörg Schärner Albert von Cleeburg, Detlef Roth Graf Adelhart, Andreas Burkhart Fust von Grimmbach, Simon Pauly Krips, Tareq Nazmi Kurt, Marko Cilic (spoken) herald/Ulrich, Rut Nothelfer cello, Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Münchner Rundfunkorchester, Ulf Schirmer
141:34 (2 CDs)
cpo 777 727-2

An opera in which the heroine doesn’t sing? Well, I suppose many of us will have experienced performances that inspired the feeling that it might be an improvement, but this is the only example I know of where the part was written in such a way. The first of Weber’s operas to achieve some success, Silvana has its roots in the composer’s first operatic venture, Das Waldmädchen of 1800. The immature teenage work was discarded, but Weber incorporated fragments of it when he returned to a re-worked version of what is an archetypal Romantic story. A naïve mute girl is discovered living in a wild forest by Rudolf, a hunting nobleman. He of course falls in love with her and after many twists and turns eventually discovers she is the noble sister of the woman to whom he is unwillingly engaged. Fortunately she too wants to marry someone else, so all ends well, especially as Silvana has only been playing mute. Silvana created little impression when first given in Frankfurt in 1810, but achieved greater success when it was staged in Berlin two years later.

Both as literature and drama Silvana is fatally crippled by a quite abominable libretto. Characters appear and disappear, only to play no further part in the proceedings, while a line like ‘shall I ruffle my hair in my rage?’ is sadly not unique. Musically, too, the opera is hardly distinguished, though the forest setting of the first and third acts inspires the evocation of nature in all its sublime awesomeness that would reach full maturity in Der Freischütz a decade later. There are also many felicitous touches of orchestration, the touching scene in which Rudolph attempts to question the silent Silvana enhanced by an expressive cello solo.

The present performance of the original 1810 version is taken live from a production in Munich in 2010. The singing is variable, the demanding role of Rudolph in particular needing an heroic tenor in the Jonas Kaufmann mould, qualities regrettably not in evidence in the strained, over-parted singing of Ferdinand von Bothmer. The main female singing role is that Silvana’s sister Mechthilde, Michaela Kaune progressing from an unsteady start in the scene with her blustering father Adelhart to give a dramatically compelling and more tonally secure account of her big act 2 recitative and aria. The only other major role is that of the squire Krips, a Papageno-like character, well if not memorably sung by Simon Pauly, while the singing of the smaller roles does nothing to add or detract from the overall competency. The experienced Ulf Schirmer directs with sensitivity and due regard for Weber’s fresh, bright orchestral palette, while drawing fine playing from his Munich Radio forces, though period winds (in particular) would doubtless have provided greater piquancy. The booklet includes a translation of the sung parts, but does not print the spoken dialogue in German or English, a synopsis being provided in another part of the text.

Brian Robins

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Categories
Recording

Jadassohn: Symphonies 1-4

Brandenburgisches Staatsorchester Frankfurt, Howard Griffiths
127:34 (2 CDs)
cpo 777 607-2
+Cavatine op. 69 (Klaudyna Schulze-Broniewska violin), Cavatine op. 120 (Thomas Georgi cello)

[dropcap]J[/dropcap]adassohn’s name came up frequently when I was looking into musical life in late 19th-century Dundee; as one of the Leipzig conservatory’s professors, he taught many of the Scots students and wrote annual reports on their progress. My curiosity to hear his little-known music was piqued by the Naxos lists and they kindly sent me a review copy. The excellent booklet notes suggest that Jadassohn realised that he was not keeping pace with changes in musical fashion and that his symphonies found little favour with later audiences. There is nothing “wrong” with any of these four substantial works, and indeed there is much to admire and enjoy – he had a keen ear for instrumental colour (his textbook, “A course in instruction of instrumentation” is still readily available!) and also a strong feeling for musical architecture; every part of his creation has its rightful place. And yet there is something unchallenging and comfortable about it all; there are no great shocks or surprises. That is not to say that the music is dull or monotonous – not in the least! The most attractive material is perhaps to be found in the two solo works, like slow movements from unwritten concertos, beautifully rendered by members of the orchestra. If you find the listening experience a little intense, simply turn to the back of the booklet, where a photo of director Howard Griffiths about to perform an expelliarmus charm on someone will soon lighten your mood!

Brian Clark

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