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Highly Reviewed Recordings

May 4 - May 17, 2011

WHITBOURN, J.: Choral Works - Luminosity / Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis / He carried me away in the spirit (Commotio, M. Berry)
(Naxos: 8.572103)

WHITBOURN, J.: Choral Works - Luminosity / Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis / He carried me away in the spirit (Commotio, M. Berry) James Whitbourn has a growing reputation as a composer, conductor and producer of broadcasts. An earlier disc devoted to his choral music was warmly received by Grace Lace, though I have not heard it. On the evidence of this new disc I am keen to remedy that omission.

The most substantial offering here is Luminosity, a work in seven movements, conceived for choir and dancers. In a staged performance there is also the opportunity to use lighting further to stimulate the imagination and response of the audience though here we must rely solely on the auditory aspect of the work. The scoring is novel. The accompaniment features a solo viola obbligato, played here most skilfully and persuasively by Levine Andrade, one of the founder members of the Arditti Quartet. The other instruments involved are organ, percussion and the tanpura, an Indian instrument that produces a drone-like sound.

The texts selected by Whitbourn are by a number of mystic writers, including St. John the Evangelist, St. Teresa of Avila and St. Augustine. Whitbourn uses the forces at his disposal to create some most imaginative and often subtle sonorities and textures – the way the husky tones of the viola are employed is most evocative. There’s some most effective writing for the choir and the Indian overtones are not used to excess so that when they feature in the musical palette the effect generated thereby is all the stronger. The rapt concluding movement is particularly beautiful but the whole score is impressive and eloquent and its appearance on disc is most welcome.

The ‘Mag’ and ‘Nunc’ were written for King’s College, Cambridge and first performed there on Easter Sunday, 2005. The music is impressive and often dramatic, especially in the Magnificat. There are some passages of great power, such as at the doxology of the Magnificat and at the words ‘to be a light to lighten the Gentiles’ in the Nunc Dimittis. There are also some very poetic stretches, especially at the beginning and end of the second canticle. The only slight reservation I have is to wonder in passing how frequently the canticles will be performed. The tam-tam part, though optional, seems to me to be very important and many church choirs won’t have access to such an instrument. That part may be optional but the tenor solo role is absolutely integral. It sounds very demanding, requiring a soloist of the stature of Christopher Gillett to do it justice – Gillett is excellent, by the way. I hope these impressive canticles won’t languish unperformed, save on Big Occasions, simply because the writing is too ambitious.

The smaller-scale pieces give much pleasure. It’s good to hear the distinctive voice of Archbishop Tutu himself reading his own words, even if his contribution is brief.Eternal Restwas written to a BBC commission for the broadcast of the funeral of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. The music was originally conceived for orchestra – and it’s not clear from the notes, parts of which could have been more expressed with greater clarity, whether it was the orchestral version that was used for the funeral broadcast. If the choral version, with organ accompaniment, is a later inspiration then it seems to me to work very well.Of one that is so fair and brightuses, I think, the same text that Britten uses for hisA Hymn to the Virgin. I can’t be sure since this is one of the texts not reproduced in the booklet. Whitbourn’s setting, for unaccompanied voices, is a good one.

The music on this disc reveals a composer with a fine ear for vocal writing. The music sounds well conceived for the voices and the accompaniments are, without exception, effective and complement the singing very well. James Whitbourn has made a shrewd choice of texts for these pieces and it’s obvious that the words have inspired him. The performances seem to me to be very good and accurate – though I haven’t seen any scores. Commotio, a choir which I’ve not previously encountered, sings very well indeed and the instrumentalists match the excellence of the singers. I would imagine that Matthew Berry is fully convinced by the music since he inspires performances of great conviction.

I’ve enjoyed this disc very much. James Whitbourn seems to be a choral composer of no mean accomplishment.

John Quinn, Music Web International

BRYARS, G.: Piano Concerto, "The Solway Canal" / After Handel's Vesper / Ramble on Cortona (van Raat, Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic, Tausk)
(Naxos / British Piano Concertos: 8.572570)

BRYARS, G.: Piano Concerto,

Gavin Bryars, at the age of 68, is without question one of the great living composers. Though not nearly as well known as Gorecki or Part, there are works by the post-minimalist British composer that are every bit as haunting and beautiful as theirs. His career isn’t exactly commonplace either. He began as a jazz bass player, often in free jazz contexts, studied with John Cage and Cornelius Cardew, and, by the time of his works “The Sinking of the Titanic” and “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” had created a sound world all its own, no matter what bloodlines it would clearly have across the Atlantic to the music of Reich, Glass and Adams. This is strongly tonal music, lyrical, at times so personal that it borders on private and yet it seldom fails to impress, whether his original sources are Handel, 13th century manuscripts in Italy or impressionism. Van Raat is perfect for it, refusing steadfastly to force a presence on it that the composer so conspicuously avoided (in that, it’s a bit like the piano music of Satie). 

Jeff Simon, Buffalo News

SHOSTAKOVICH, D.: Symphonies, Vol. 5 - Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3 (Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra, Petrenko)
(Naxos: 8.572396)

SHOSTAKOVICH, D.: Symphonies, Vol. 5 - Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3 (Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra, Petrenko) The Young Shostakovich Molds His Symphonic Sound

It seems like the Shostakovich juggernaut keeps gaining momentum. The Soviet-era musician, who died in 1975, is well on his way to reaching the very pinnacle of 20th century composers, judging by how many people are playing and listening to his music these days. Last year, a lesser-known opera, The Nose, was produced at the Met and was hailed as one of the great theatrical events of the year in New York. And CDs of his music keep flowing into my mail bin (see the list below).

Although Shostakovich's symphonies are well-represented by major conductors — Mstislav Rostropovich, Vladimir Ashkenazy and Mariss Jansons recorded all 15 — at least two more complete cycles are in the works.

Conductor Vasily Petrenko — from the composer's home town of St. Petersburg — has just issued Symphonies No. 1 and 3, the fifth volume in an ongoing series with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. The disc is being released next week, but the Naxos label has given us a sneak preview.

As a young man, Shostakovich was touched with brilliance. His first symphony, premiering in 1926, was a stunning success. It heralded him as a whip-smart composer who, at age 19, knew what to do with an orchestra.

Petrenko's performance captures the composer's willful approach to traditional symphonic formulas. The second movement is packed with early Shostakovich trademarks: punchy solos for winds, whiffs of sarcasm, off-kilter rhythms and slam-dunk percussion, all rendered with agility and accuracy by the Liverpool players.

The Symphony No. 3, in one long movement, is tougher to love. Yet Petrenko makes a strong case for this often overlooked and somewhat scattered 1929 piece, which is subtitled "The First of May." Here we have Shostakovich the modernist, experimenting with the dark interiors and musico-political gestures that would become part of — for better or worse — his mystique. Petrenko's presentation is theatrical and convincing, even in the short choral movement the composer tacked on at the end to fuel the revolutionary spirit.

Tom Huizenga, NPR Classical

MAHLER, G.: Symphony No. 8 (Varady, Eaglen, Bullock, Schmidt, Rappe, Riegel, Schulte, Sotin, London Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra, Tennstedt)
(LPO: LPO-0052)

MAHLER, G.: Symphony No. 8 (Varady, Eaglen, Bullock, Schmidt, Rappe, Riegel, Schulte, Sotin, London Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra, Tennstedt) Although there are a half-dozen or so listings of Mahler Eighths by Klaus Tennstedt, he appears to have recorded the symphony twice, in 1986 and 1991. This latter effort, a live concert performance from Royal Festival Hall, on January 27, is the one under review. There is a DVD video performance of it as well available on EMI. The later account, released here on the London Philharmonic Orchestra label, is a bit more expansive than the earlier effort (87:01 vs. about 82:30) and offers slightly better sound.

Tennstedt, who recorded all nine Mahler symphonies to great acclaim, was not just an effective conductor in Mahler, but also in Bruckner, Wagner, Richard Strauss and (surprisingly to me) Prokofiev. This is a powerful Eighth. Tennstedt draws superb singing from the chorus throughout: try the ending of the first movement (Gloria Patri Domino) and listen to the energy and spirit of the various choral groups, as well as that of the soloists. The boys' chorus in Hände verschlinget euch and Er überwächst uns schon is utterly splendid, as they seem to sing with the maturity and vitality of seasoned vocalists.

The other choir sections turn in fine work too: the Younger Angels sing with such beauty and commitment in both Jene Rosen aus den Händen and Ich spür' soeben. The closing section,Alles Vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichnis, is sung by all with a sort of reverential ecstasy that lifts the listener right up to the heavens.

I've said little about the soloists so far, but they too are excellent: Julia Varady, Jane Eaglen, Kenneth Riegel and Hans Sotin head a fine cast to rival most others in this work. If one were to select a recording strictly on the basis of the soloists and chorus, the Robert Shaw/Telarc, with Deborah Voigt, would be hard to beat, but interpretively and in orchestral quality that effort falls a bit short.

Tennstedt is a master of the orchestra, on the other hand. He makes the orchestral prelude that opens Part 2, Final Scene from Goethe's Faust, for once a truly atmospheric and effective piece: the music here is fraught with tension and builds in mystery, offering strong contrast to the surrounding big choral numbers. Tennstedt demonstrates that he knows how to make the music in this very subdued section come to life, music that can sound almost pedestrian in the hands of a lesser conductor. While his slower tempo in the return of the Veni, Creator Spiritus may not work so well, his overall use of tempo shifts, dynamics and phrasing in general is nearly always well imagined and effective.

Who has the best Mahler Eighth? The first Bernstein (Sony) is compelling in many ways, but its sound is a bit dated; Wit (Naxos), recorded in 2005, is excellent in most respects, as are Solti (Decca) and Sinopoli (DG). If I had to pick winners here, I would take Bernstein, Wit, and this 1991 Tennstedt effort.

Robert Cummings,

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