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Highly Reviewed Recordings

October 31 - November 13, 2012

NIELSEN, C.: Symphonies Nos. 2, "The 4 Temperaments" and 3, "Sinfonia espansiva" (New York Philharmonic, Gilbert)
(Dacapo: 6.220623)

NIELSEN, C.: Symphonies Nos. 2,

Dacapo’s Smoking New Nielsen Cycle

The New York Philharmonic is a powerhouse orchestra, Nielsen is a powerhouse symphonist, and Alan Gilbert revels in the music’s energy and dynamism. I had the great joy of attending one of the performances of the Third Symphony from which this recording was compiled. As everyone knows, Avery Fisher Hall doesn’t have the best acoustics, and I was sitting in the balcony directly opposite the brass section. The sheer volume of sound that the players produced was stunning, literally. Fortunately, Dacapo’s engineers have managed to achieve a very natural and lifelike ensemble balance in these recordings, without in any way compromising the guts and gusto of the playing. Sample the big waltz from the Third Symphony’s first-movement development section and you’ll immediately hear what I’m talking about.

As already suggested, Gilbert’s interpretations take no prisoners, and frankly that is just what Nielsen needs. The Allegro collerico opening of “The Four Temperaments” is really ferocious, the finale almost giddy. And yet, Gilbert’s tempos in the Andante pastorale of the “Espansiva”, or the Andante malincolico of the “Temperaments”, are also perfectly judged, sensitive, and expressive. The former, especially, reveals a combination of tranquility and flow unique in the work’s discography. The string playing is particularly beautiful here, and the Philharmonic’s woodwinds, solo oboe especially, do themselves proud in music that often relies on their artistry and character. Gilbert also very convincingly paces the tricky finale of the same work, with its hymn-like main theme that still has to sound “allegro”.

Dacapo, of course, already has an excellent Nielsen cycle—indeed, the reference edition—in its catalog, featuring Michael Schønwandt and the Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra (also available on Naxos). So the question must be whether or not this newcomer is distinctive enough to warrant the duplication, and the answer is a definite “yes”. Gilbert reveals a genuine affinity for the music, and Nielsen’s athleticism suits the orchestra very well indeed. If this series keeps up as it has begun, it’s going to be stupendous.

By David Hurwitz,

BEETHOVEN, L. van: Symphonies Nos. 5 and 7 (Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, Gardiner)
(SDG: SDG717)

BEETHOVEN, L. van: Symphonies Nos. 5 and 7 (Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, Gardiner) WQXR Album of the Week

Nearly 20 years after their acclaimed Beethoven Symphonies recordings for Deutsche Grammophon, Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique returned to this repertoire for the first time last year, in a tour that took them to London, Philadelphia, Washington and New York. The concert in Carnegie Hall was broadcast live by WQXR, who kindly agreed to make the recording available on our label. Performing on period instruments, the ORR brings brisk energy, as well as a genuinely thrilling sound. 

Copyright © 2012

HOLST, I.: Choral Works / BRITTEN, B.: Rejoice in the Lamb (orch. I. Holst) (Clare College Choir, Cambridge, G. Ross)
(Harmonia Mundi: HMU907576)

HOLST, I.: Choral Works / BRITTEN, B.: Rejoice in the Lamb (orch. I. Holst) (Clare College Choir, Cambridge, G. Ross)

Essential Holst–Imogen, That Is

Like cousins born of different parents but so similar as to make anyone believe they were siblings, Imogen Holst’s Mass in A minor (1927), only one step removed from the monumental G minor work by Ralph Vaughan Williams, is almost a dead ringer for the earlier creation (1921) of her illustrious teacher. The resemblance is more than uncanny, and certainly not coincidental—throughout the Mass there are so many identical rhythmical treatments of the text, imitative devices, undulating chant-like modal melodies, even exact quotes of melodic themes, and so many instances of the same characteristic parallel harmonic voicings Vaughan Williams employed as a distinctive feature of his Mass, even in some cases a reiteration of the exact chord progressions (the conclusion of the Agnus Dei), that as you listen you can’t avoid hearing both works simultaneously, any more than you could ignore those two cousins playing energetically in the next room.

For sure, the Kyrie’s melismatic opening measures, with pseudo-fugal staggered entrances, could only have been inspired by the same passages of Vaughan Williams’ work. The only major differences between the two Masses, otherwise inbred in tone, spirit, texture, thematic material, and harmonic structure, are Holst’s scoring for single choir (as opposed to Vaughan Williams’ double) and the absence of a vocal quartet. What’s the big deal about all this? Only that Holst’s work is exceptionally well written, just original enough to compel serious interest by both experts and amateur choral music lovers,  and could stand as a more than satisfactory substitute/replacement for the Vaughan Williams—while only requiring the vocal forces of a single four-part choir. This 20-minute-plus piece is a musically and historically significant addition to the choral repertoire, and an eminently performable one that deserves a published edition (apparently the one used here was prepared from manuscript).

The Holst works on the rest of the program show a composer highly competent and well versed in the styles with which she was surrounded—as a student of Vaughan Williams and as friend, colleague, and amanuensis of Benjamin Britten. Although she had her moments of originality—especially evident in the unique scale patterns of Hallo my fancy, whither wilt thou go? and in the challenging yet totally agreeable Three Psalms, set for mixed choir and strings. And if Welcome Joy and Welcome Sorrow, settings of six Keats poems for female voices and harp, reminds you more than a little bit of Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, well, you know your Britten. Britten actually asked Holst to write the work for the 1951 Aldeburgh Festival. It’s a wonderful set of songs—especially delightful is the buoyant “Over the Hill and over the Dale”—and it deserves to join the standard repertoire of harpists and treble choirs.

Perhaps most intriguing is Holst’s orchestration of Britten’s cantata Rejoice in the Lamb, originally for choir, soloists, and organ. Although I still prefer the original—it’s more a balance question than one of color or texture—if you had never heard the organ setting and you heard this one instead, you would be completely won over by Holst’s intelligent and absolutely “right” choices. To be sure, an intelligent and creative orchestrator can find much help in the organ scoring itself, and Holst does some magical things, especially with the winds in the solo sections—the ideal choice of clarinet in  “For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry” and (with bassoon) in “For the flowers are great blessings”, and the choice of oboe in “For I am under the same accusation…” Yes, the orchestra threatens to overwhelm the choir in the climactic point of the latter movement, but the result is affecting and powerful, as much as in the organ version, but brushed with the collective colors of the orchestral instruments.

While you can’t help but be impressed with Holst’s orchestration skills, this disc, with its first-rate performances by the Choir of Clare College,  also gives substantial reason to acknowledge Gustav Holst’s daughter as an eminent creative figure in her own right, outside her academic relationship with Vaughan Williams, and her functional, subordinate  association with Britten. Aside from whatever derivative characteristics these works display, Holst was a competent and careful musical craftsperson who knew the choral idiom and wrote for it uncompromisingly and inclusively. There’s nothing to fault here regarding the performances, and the sound, from London’s All Hallows’ Church, Gospel Oak (the project overseen by none other than John Rutter as producer, editor, and engineer), is A-1. Essential for choral music collectors.

By David Vernier,

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