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Highly Reviewed Recordings

January 2 - January 22, 2013

RACHMANINOV, S.: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2 (Lugansky)
(Ambroisie: AM208)

RACHMANINOV, S.: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2 (Lugansky)

If, like me, you feel that Rachmaninov’s First Sonata doesn’t quite stack up, Nikolai Lugansky’s account may just cause you to have second thoughts.  Many of its’ figurations, rhythmic patterns and other ideas seem to be a rehearsal for (and put to more effective use in) the glorious Third Piano Concerto which followed the composition of the Sonata.  Certainly one does not need to be cognisant of the composer’s Faust-Gretchen-Mephistopheles programme to appreciate its many arresting passages.  As in the Second Sonata, Lugansky’s superb performance is endorsed by the rich, full tone of the piano, which he exploits from the fullest fff in the bass to the most ethereal treble pianissimos – captured at Potton Hall by producer/sound recorder Nicolas Bartholomee.

Opinions may vary as to which of the two official version of the Second Sonata is preferable:  the original 1913 work or the considerably compressed 1931 alternative.  The booklet writer states that Lugansky ‘presents his own vision of the work [by making] a number of significant cuts to the [1913 version] by adopting here and there elements from the second one, following his own preferences and tastes.’  I could not spot any ‘significant cuts’ or other changes to the 1913 version other than some textual alternatives from the 1931 revision.  The last pages (presto) of the finale, frequently marred by blurred detail, are here not only lucidly projected but quite thrilling, emblematic of the disc as a whole:  Rachmaninov playing of the highest order. 

- Jeremy Nicholas, Gramophone

FRANCK, C.: Symphony in D minor / Hulda (Liege Philharmonic, Arming)
(Fuga Libera: FUG596)

FRANCK, C.: Symphony in D minor / Hulda (Liege Philharmonic, Arming)

César Franck remains perhaps the most unknown of all the great composers. He wrote operas, oratorios, symphonic poems, and chamber music throughout his life, but except for the few late works virtually all of it languishes in obscurity. Then there are the organ works, the finest of their kind since Bach, which remain the province primarily of organists. I have to confess, I am often no fan of organ music generally, but Franck’s music for the instrument really does have the power to cross over and give pleasure even to the most hard core doubters.

This splendid disc features music you probably haven’t ever heard. The tone poem Ce qu’on entend sur la montagne (What One Hears on the Mountain) dates from 1947, predating Liszt’s first symphonic poem of the same title by two or three years. It may thus be the very first symphonic poem in history, and it’s beautiful. The very opening, with its high violins and suspended cymbals, is an astonishing piece of orchestration for its date, far more sophisticated than anything that Liszt or Wagner were doing at the time (the work is contemporary with Tannhäuser). Franck’s musical ideas are more striking than Liszt’s, his structure more cohesive over virtually the same span of time–about 25 minutes. It was recorded at least once previously, for Koch, but this performance is clearly superior both as playing and sound.

Hulda was Franck’s last completed opera, and the ballet music, an allegorical “four seasons” type of scenario, is just good French dance music of the period, enriched by some typically Franckian harmonic spice. Laid out in five shapely movements, I offer samples of the second (Winter’s Dance), with its gorgeous lyrical writing, and the boisterous finale. As you will hear for yourself, the playing and recorded sound are excellent in all respects. Christian Arming leads Franck’s home town forces in audibly committed interpretations, which is a good thing because you also get yet another recording of the inevitable Symphony in D minor.

Happily, it’s also one of the best to come out in recent years. Arming paces this tricky piece just about perfectly. The first movement, in particular, has no dead spots whatsoever. The central allegretto finds exactly the right point of balance between andante and scherzo, and the finale has plenty of excitement, with a powerfully built coda enhanced by Arming’s directness of expression and firm pulse. This important release is sure to give great pleasure, and it deserves a place in every serious collection.

[Note: Those interested in learning more about Franck should consider purchasing R.J. Stove’s recently published (2012) biography César Franck: His Life and Times, the first major study of the composer in English in over three decades.]

- David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday

TCHAIKOVSKY, P.I.: Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5 (London Philharmonic, V. Jurowski)
(LPO: LPO-0064)

TCHAIKOVSKY, P.I.: Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5 (London Philharmonic, V. Jurowski)


The moment immediately following the arresting horn and trumpet fanfares at the start of the Fourth Symphony reveals a big and consoling string chord – a complete change of mood and ambience.  I don’t think I have ever heard it sound so telling, so personal, so heart-easing, as it does in this live Vladmir Jurowski’ performance from the Royal Festival Hall in London.  Indeed, both these performances exemplify what makes Jurowski’s approach to Tchaikovsky so special.

The playing throughout… both these performances is marked by a oneness with Jurowski’s vision and, it goes without saying, a now well-established empathy between the players of the London Philharmonic and their principal conductor.  The climactic return of the big sweeping second theme has a glorious ‘in the moment’ abandon and suddenly you are in the live performance.  It’s the same with the dramatic spring in to the Allegro vivace of the finale, violins really bearing down with the heels of their bows.  The resounding cheers at the close of the Fifth but not the Fourth suggest a retake or ‘patch’ of the coda of the latter.  If so, it doesn’t show, though the close of the Fifth (with Jurowski pointedly not paying too much heed to the meno mosso marking in the horns and then trumpets) carries a very tangible sense of rising to the occasion. 

- Edward Seckerson, Gramophone

HOLST, G.: Symphony, "The Cotswolds" / Walt Whitman, Overture / Indra / Japanese Suite / A Winter Idyll (Ulster Orchestra, Falletta)
(Naxos: 8.572914)

HOLST, G.: Symphony,

JoAnn Falletta and the Ulster Orchestra present a diverse program of lesser known works by Gustav Holst, the composer of the perennially popular suite The Planets. Holst’s music was informed early on by the late Romantics, and traces of Johannes Brahms can be plainly heard in the Walt Whitman Overture, which Holst composed at college when he was still searching for a personal style. The Symphony in F major, “The Cotswolds,” was a major step forward in developing a distinctive voice, and though it partakes of conventions in British symphonic writing, it shows a growing awareness of folk music’s potential in his work. A Winter Idyll, influenced by Holst’s teacher, Charles Villiers Stanford, shows much the same tentative exploration of the Walt Whitman Overture. But there is a pronounced change in flavor and mood in the Japanese Suite and the symphonic poem, Indra, which show Holst’s adoption of impressionist harmonies and atmospheric orchestration, as well as a turning away from purely German influences to draw on Asian musical ideas and philosophies. Fans of Holst’s music will find the last 25 minutes of the CD will put them on familiar ground, though the first 40 minutes of the album will at least provide context for his career. The orchestra delivers satisfying performances, and Falletta leads with great control and clarity, so all the pieces feel fully realized and exciting to play.

© 2012

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