On record – Sinfonia of London / John Wilson – Escales: French Orchestral Works (Chandos)

Escales – French Orchestral Works

Chabrier España (1883)
Duruflé Trois Danses (1932)
Saint-Saëns Le Rouet d’Omphale Op.31 (1871)
Debussy Prélude a l’apres-midi d’un faune (1891-94)
Ibert Escales (1922)
Massenet Meditation from Thaïs (1894)
Ravel Rapsodie espagnole (1907-08)

Adam Walker (Debussy), Andrew Haveron (Massenet), Sinfonia of London / John Wilson

Chandos CHAN 5252 [78’19”]

Producer Brian Pidgeon
Engineer Ralph Couzens

Recorded 6-7 September 2019 (Trois Danses nos.1 & 3), 16-18 January 2019 (other works), Church of St. Augustine, Kilburn, London

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

The Sinfonia of London, an orchestra from the 20th century given a new lease of life by conductor John Wilson, makes its second release for Chandos.

In fact we could term it as a series of Sinfonia of London buses, for you wait two decades and then two come along at once! The orchestra’s renaissance began with a stunning account of Korngold’s Symphony in F sharp last year, but now they turn their attention to France, and an imaginatively chosen program celebrating the elusive but immediately recognisable French orchestral sound.

What’s the music like?

A complete pleasure. Although irresistibly French, the music in the collection does remind us of the close bond between France and Spain, thanks to classics of the repertoire from Chabrier and Ravel and a relative rarity from Ibert.

Chabrier‘s España begins the collection and it is an absolute delight, a feel good piece given even more of a lift in this brilliant account. Wilson’s instincts for the stage come to the fore immediately, the bouncy rhythms and cheeky asides proving irresistible when presented with this much colour and warmth.

At the other end Ravel’s Rapsodie Espagnole is no less characterful. The atmospheric Prélude à la nuit ghosts in from silence, Wilson delighting in the orchestral textures and Ravel’s masterly sense of line. The persuasive rhythms of the Feria are expertly judged, the silky strings giving way as the music surges forward with terrific momentum.

Between these two gateposts are works of colour and élan. It is so good to see the inclusion of relative rarities in Duruflé’s Trois Danses, one of only two completed orchestral works in his output, and Ibert’s underrated Escales (Ports of Call) which gives the collection its name. The Duruflé sparkles in Wilson’s hands, violins caressing the longer melodies of the Divertissement, first dance of the three. Much of the composer’s relatively small output is for organ, which he effectively uses as his orchestra, but a persuasive Danse lente and thrilling Tambourin give us further proof of his prowess with large forces, harnessing the influence of Dukas. The latter features a particularly enticing saxophone solo, the recording indulging the colour and scope of Duruflé’s writing.

The Ibert, meanwhile, is a treat. Just over a minute into Escales‘ first movement, Palermo, there is what can only be described as a murmuration of violins, the music fluttering upwards in a bold sweep. Meanwhile Wilson secures a terrific drive to the description of the third ‘port’, Valencia, which ends with a flourish.

Before Escales comes a fresh faced account of Debussy’s Prélude a l’apres-midi d’un faune, the piece that effectively changed the face of music on the eve of the 20th century. Wilson and his charges capture the sense of newness, but also the enchanting and harmonies, with seductive playing from flautist Adam Walker. By contrast the Méditation from Thaïs, Massenet’s most famous orchestral excerpt, is more conventional. It could have felt misplaced here in terms of mood and musical language, but orchestra leader Andrew Haveron invests it with plenty of affection and never overdoes the romantically inclined melodies.

The packed release also finds room for a symphonic poem by Saint-Saëns. Le Rouet d’Omphale (The Spinning Wheel of Omphale) is a relatively early work and a great example of the composer’s melodic flair and ability for musical programming in thrall to Liszt. Wilson has its measure fully, pacing the music’s build ideally in arguably the finest modern recording since Charles Dutoit’s classic account with the Philharmonia in 1980.

Does it all work?

Yes. This is a brilliantly played and really well-chosen program, suiting both the curious listener and the familiar Francophile. What comes through most of all is the sheer enthusiasm and flair of the players, galvanized by Wilson in accounts that are both instinctive and incredibly well prepared.

From the opening notes of España it is immediately clear how this collection is going to go, and with the changes in mood suitably well planned and ordered – save arguably the Massenet – it is a listening experience you will want to return to often.

Is it recommended?

Wholeheartedly. This is music making as it should be, celebrating great orchestral music packed full of good tunes, instrumental colour and the ability to paint vivid pictures of its subjects. Wilson and his charges should be congratulated for an achievement which will surely land them with a glut of awards in the next few months – and only heightens the anticipation for their third release on Chandos, later this month, when they will return to Korngold for the Violin Concerto and String Sextet. In the meantime, make the most of this wonderful set of French fancies!

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You can listen to clips from this disc and purchase a copy at the Chandos website here

On record – Louis Lortie, BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / Edward Gardner – Saint-Saëns: Piano Concertos 3 & 5 (Chandos)

Saint-Saëns
Rhapsodie d’Auvergne Op.73 (1884)
Piano Concerto no.3 in E flat major Op.29 (1869)
Allegro appassionato in C sharp minor Op.70 (1884)
Piano Concerto no.5 in F major Op.103 ‘Egyptian’ (1896)

Louis Lortie (piano), BBC Philharmonic Orchestra / Edward Gardner

Chandos CHAN 20038 [66’51”]

Producers Mike George and Brian Pidgeon
Engineer Stephen Rinker

Recorded 13 January 2018 (Rhapsodie d’Auvergne), 20 & 25 February 2019 (other works), Media City UK, Salford, Manchester

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

This is the second installment of Saint-Saëns piano concertos from Louis Lortie, Edward Gardner and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. It completes the cycle of five they have been recording for Chandos.

Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concertos tend to be overlooked in the concert hall, with only occasional performances for no.2 and no.5, which was written in part during a holiday in Egypt. Their neglect is unfortunate, as there is much to enjoy as the pieces unfold. The demands on the solo pianist may be considerable, but the rewards outweigh the effort required for sure.

What’s the music like?

This new release offers the Piano Concerto no.3 in E flat major, still a relatively early work, where Saint-Saëns builds on the influence of Beethoven and Liszt to create a piece with memorable themes and unusual formal devices. We then move to his later period and the Piano Concerto no.5, the ‘Egyptian’. This is a daring piece in the sense that Saint-Saëns was not following the trend of modern music set by the post-Wagner composers, or the new sound worlds offered by Debussy and Ravel. Instead he was writing for the virtuoso pianist in a descriptive and positive sense – conventional but stretching the established ‘rules’ of the concertos. This piece is ultimately fun and packed with tunes, while asking the soloist to achieve some pretty difficult technical feats. There is a faint exoticism capturing the carefree mood of the composer on vacation.

Topping up the positive outlook are the Rapsodie d’Auvergne and the Allegro appassionato, both shorter pieces for piano and orchestra with a similarly sunny outlook. The Allegro appassionato has more drive, while the Rapsodie is a breezy piece for the great outdoors. As the booklet writer Roger Nichols observes, it is based on a tune the composer ‘heard sung by a peasant washing her clothes in a stream in the Auvergne. As such, it is possibly the only folksong from France that Saint-Saëns ever included in his music’.

Does it all work?

Yes. This is extremely positive music, celebrating the combination of piano and orchestra with a good deal of energy.

The concertos are nicely balanced. The better known Fifth, stacked high with good tunes, finds Ed Gardner keen to develop its exotic air with the lush textures of the BBC Philharmonic strings in the first movement. There is a dramatic salvo to begin the second movement, where Lortie gets the melodic inflections just right, then an exotic minimalist passage towards the end, cutting to a real flight of fancy into the finale. Lortie gets a terrific substance to the sound of the lower end of the piano.

The Piano Concerto no.3 if anything fares even better, its status elevated well above the derivative thanks to the stress on its memorable themes. There is a heroic air to the piano part that Louis Lortie develops very nicely, and his commanding performance gives the piece its essential forward drive.

The Rhapsodie d’Auvergne is a bubbly piece, starting softly but gaining ground during the development of its theme. There are brief connections with Brahms before an effervescent and watery sequence, with excellent work in the right hand from Lortie.
Meanwhile the Allegro appassionato is a red-blooded affair very much in the vein of Liszt, asking the soloist for a few feats of athleticism while remaining close to the composer’s melodic heart.

Is it recommended?

Yes. This is an ideal release for banishing any lingering winter blues! There may be some really good recordings around already of the concertos, thanks to Stephen Hough and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Sakari Oramo (Hyperion), and looking further back the classic 1980s recordings made by Pascal Rogé and the London Philharmonic Orchestra with Charles Dutoit (Decca).

These sparkling new versions, beautifully recorded, offer a great deal of passion and panache, and at the very least take their place alongside the best..

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You can listen to clips from this disc and purchase a copy at the Chandos website here

On record – CBSO / Edward Gardner – Mendelssohn in Birmingham Vol.5: Overtures (Chandos)

Mendelssohn
Trumpet Overture Op.101 (1825)
Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream Op.21 (1826)****
Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage Op.27 (1828)**
The Hebrides (Fingal’s Cave) Op.26 (1830)*
The Fair Melusine, Op. 32 (1834)
Overture to St. Paul Op.36 (1836)
Ruy Blas Overture Op.95 (1839)***
Overture to Athalie Op.74 (1844)
Lorenda Ramou (piano)

Chandos CHSA5235 [74’53”]

Producer Brian Pidgeon
Engineers Ralph Couzens, Jonathan Cooper and ****Robert Gilmour

Recorded *20-21 October 2013; **15 and ***16 February 2014; ****13-14 July 2015; 10-11 July 2018 at Town Hall, Birmingham

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

For the fifth release in Chandos’s series Mendelssohn in Birmingham, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and its onetime guest conductor Edward Gardner further traverse the orchestral output of a composer who was not averse to snatching mediocrity from the jaws of greatness.

What’s the music like?

It should be pointed out only a part of this release consists of new material. The Hebrides, Ruy Blas and Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage first appeared in harness with Symphonies nos.4 and 5, nos.1 and 3, and no.2 respectively; while A Midsummer Night’s Dream was coupled with a selection of the incidental music for Shakespeare’s play as well as the Violin Concerto. Those who have been acquiring this series may thus feel a little short-changed, which perhaps makes purchasing those previously unreleased items as individual downloads the best option.

Proceeding chronologically, the Trumpet Overture reinforced Mendelssohn’s precocity in the wake of his Octet for strings – its breezily incisive manner, opened-out expressively by ominous asides, a viable template for future generations on which to hone their aspirations. Few could have hoped to match A Midsummer Night’s Dream as to prodigality of invention or technical resource, not least in terms of its redefining the orchestra near the outset of the Romantic era. A more prolix structure, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage yet merits revival through the limpid eloquence of its introduction and surging impetus of its Allegro towards a rousing peroration. That said, it cannot compare with The Hebrides in terms of an evocation sustained via formal sleight of hand and emotional clarity as remain breath-taking to this day.

Into the 1830s, The Fair Melusine still remains engaging for those subtly tangible images of watery domains (proto-Wagnerian, though the connection is easily overstated) and headlong fate through a vivid if increasingly impersonal idiom. Such impersonality had all but taken hold by the time of the oratorio St Paul, its overture breathing an aura of unforced piety and ‘natural order’ increased by the fugal interplay at its centre then almost apologetic fervency near its close. Mendelssohn rather grudgingly supplied incidental music for Victor Hugo’s play Ruy Blas, but the overture retains its drama and melodic appeal up to the surging coda. Would that Athalie conveyed comparable conviction, but this overture to Jean Racine’s play yields little more then technical proficiency as its composer strives gainfully for inspiration.

Does it all work?

On a technical level, absolutely. Mendelssohn was a master of his craft whose abundant early promise was only intermittently fulfilled by his later music. Tackling these overtures in order of composition (rather than that of this disc) tends to reinforce such an observation, which is not to deny the sheer technical command of even those lesser pieces or of the conviction that Gardner and his players have invested into this programme overall. Save for just a couple of overly headlong climaxes, there is little to fault here in terms of either playing or recording.

Is it recommended?

Yes, with the proviso detailed above. Bayan Northcott’s estimable booklet note mentions the overture to cantata The First Walpurgis Night as being inseparable from its main work, which makes a CBSO recording of this ‘dark horse’ among Mendelssohn works the more desirable.

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For more information on this release and to purchase in multiple formats visit the Chandos website

On record – BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo: Sibelius: Lemminkäinen Suite (Chandos)

BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo

Sibelius
Lemminkäinen Suite Op.22 (1893-6, rev. 1897/1900/1939)
Spring Song Op.16 (1894, rev. 1895)
Belshazzar’s Feast: Suite Op.51 (1906-07)

Chandos CHAN20136 [71’34”]

Producer Ann McKay
Engineers Neil Pemberton and Rob Winter

Recorded 22-23 May 2018 at the Colosseum, Watford

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Sakari Oramo extends his discography with this recording of Sibelius’s Lemminkäinen Suite in partnership with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (whose chief conductor he has been these past five seasons), coupled with two rarities among the composer’s shorter orchestral pieces.

What’s the music like?

Emerging from an abandoned opera, the Lemminkäinen Suite followed Kullervo as Sibelius’s second major symphonic work before his actual First Symphony. It only reached its definitive guise over a decade after the composer’s last notable piece, was unpublished until three years before his death and remains on the edge of the repertoire. Opting for the order of movements at its 1896 premiere, Oramo draws a vibrant response in Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of the Island with its heady alternation between energy and ecstasy – underlining its emotional rhetoric without undue histrionics. Sibelius’s masterpiece from this period, Lemminkäinen in Tuonela is more focussed in form and expression – Oramo pointing up the contrast between its stark depiction of the underworld with the premonitions of the hero’s mother at its centre.

Closing with the two shorter movements risks selling short this suite’s overall trajectory, but Oramo ensures their continuity through his searching take on The Swan of Tuonela (soulful cor anglais playing from Alison Teale) such as forms a potent contrast with Lemminkäinen’s Homeward Journey in which the hero marks his being restored to life with a hectic return to the human world. Others have favoured a more headlong approach, but Oramo’s building of cumulative anticipation makes for tangible excitement on the way to a resolute conclusion.

As to the other pieces here, Spring Song was once among Sibelius’s most performed pieces but long ago fell from grace. As Oramo hears it, what can feel a rather half-hearted re-run of Grieg or Svendsen assumes darker and more equivocal shades prior to its hymnic apotheosis – even if the coda still sounds perfunctory. A suite drawn from incidental music for Hjalmar Procopé’s Belshazzar’s Feast has had advocates (such as the late Gennady Rozhdestvensky) and deserves more frequent revivals. Oramo brings out the ominous undertow of Oriental Procession, as also the musing pathos of Solitude (with its wistful interplay of viola and cello) then the evocative arabesques of Nocturne, before rounding off this sequence with the ingratiating poise of Khadra’s Dance – evidently a direct descendant of that by Anitra.

Does it all work?

Yes. Oramo established himself in the UK through his probing cycle of Sibelius symphonies when music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and this account of the Lemminkäinen Suite completes his traversal of the larger symphonic works (his 2015 Proms reading of Kullervo can be found as a covermount disc on BBC Music Magazine, Volume 25 no.12) in fine style. The recorded sound has all the requisite depth and perspective necessary for this music, and there are typically informative booklet notes courtesy of Anthony Burton.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The discography for each of these pieces is now considerable but, for its interpretive insight, committed playing and impressive sound, this release gets a strong recommendation. Hopefully Oramo and the BBCSO will soon follow it up with a disc of Sibelius’s tone poems.

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You can buy this release directly from the Chandos website

On record: CBSO / Edward Gardner – Schubert: Symphonies Vol.1 – nos. 3, 5 & 8 (Chandos)

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Edward Gardner

Schubert
Symphony no.3 in D major D200 (1815)
Symphony no.5 in B flat major D485 (1816)
Symphony no.8 in B minor D759 ‘Unfinished’ (1822)

Chandos CHSA5234 [74’11”]

Producer Brian Pidgeon
Engineers Ralph Couzens, Jonathan Cooper
Recorded 9-10 July 2018 at Town Hall, Birmingham

What’s the story?

Having already tackled the Mendelssohn symphonies (and with a further instalment featuring the overtures imminent), Edward Gardner and the City of Birmingham Symphony now turn to those by Schubert in what promises to be a notable addition to the orchestra’s discography

What’s the music like?

Even with advances made (primarily through the work of Brian Newbould) in recent decades, Schubert’s cycle still tends to fall into two categories – the half-dozen mainly of his teenage years, with overt influences from Haydn, Mozart and earlier Beethoven, then the Unfinished and Great symphonies, in which the composer forges a decisive new path at the outset of the Romantic era. Whether this survey also takes in any of those fragmentary pieces that came in-between, or the drafted ‘Tenth Symphony’ from Schubert’s final weeks, remains to be seen.

This release commences with the Third Symphony, most succinct of the earlier works in its thematic economy and formal concision. Gardner catches well the anticipatory nature of the slow introduction, then steers a secure course through the main Allegro’s alternation of pert woodwind melody with lithe tuttis. More intermezzo than scherzo, the Allegretto is as deftly characterized as the ensuing Menuetto is bracingly despatched. Gardner also minimises that sense of the final Presto as unfolding in ever-decreasing circles prior to its effervescent coda.

The Fifth Symphony is the highpoint of those from Schubert’s formative years – not least in the Mozartian poise of its opening Allegro, with the CBSO woodwind at their most felicitous. Gardner’s relatively swift tempo for the Andante might lessen its inherent charm but enables him to emphasize the searching modulations into its more restive episodes – after which, the Menuetto is more explicit in its G minor incisiveness. Nor is there any lack of impetus as the final Allegro pursues a witty while also suave course through to its almost peremptory close.

From here to the intensely introspective start of the Eighth Symphony (the ‘Unfinished’) is to enter a whole new expressive epoch. The CBSO strings are at their sonorous best in the initial Allegro, here with due emphasis on its ‘moderato’ marking and accruing considerable intensity in its anguished development then fatalistic coda. The Andante complements it in almost every respect, with Gardner ensuring that the hymnal eloquence and anxious musing of its contrasting sections achieve formal and expressive parity ultimately set in relief by the coda’s radiant benediction.

Does it all work?

Yes – thanks not least to some unerringly alert and sensitive playing, together with SACD sound whose clarity and overall perspective admirably reflects that of the refurbished Town Hall acoustic. Interpretively, Gardner occupies a fruitful middle-ground between the tensile rhetoric of Jonathan Nott (Tudor) and agile incisiveness of Thomas Dausgaard (BIS), hitherto the most consistent among recent Schubert traversals and ‘authentic’ through their conveying of this music’s essence without falling prey to merely fatuous notions of stylistic authenticity.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. An additional enhancement is the insights of Bayan Northcott, whose booklet notes will hopefully grace future instalments in a series whose second volume is keenly awaited. Perhaps Gardner and the CBSO might also consider the Berwald symphonies at some point?

Further listening

You can listen to this new release on Spotify:

Further reading

You can read more about this release on the Chandos website