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Songs By Richard Strauss - Notturno
Songs By Richard Strauss - Notturno
Price: £12.61

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hampson, America's pre-eminent lieder singer, is in great form - a wonderful Strauss recital, 6 May 2014
Thomas Hampson first came to my notice as a young singer with lieder albums on Teldec, and this side of his artistry has persisted over the years. He was a fully formed interpreter of the German Romantics from the start, astonishing as that is from an american singer - his dedication to German art song itself is a remarkable feat for a non-European. Like Fischer-Dieskau, he's one of the few baritones to record songs of Richard Strauss, which are almost universally sung by sopranos and, to a leser extent, tenors. but his voice has always had a tenorish extension, and at age 58, his voice remains remarkably supple and bright-sounding, two decided assets in Strauss's long lyrical, often high-reaching melodies.

This CD was preceded by one devoted to Mahler in an orchestral setting, and I was deeply impressed by Hampson's artistry. To my ears, he exceeds Gerhaher, Boesch, and even Goerne in his musical rapport with the varied idioms of German art songs. Here his style is particularly fresh and varied, alive to every change of mood. There is no hint of the opera singer stopping to sing a song, and no platform manner in his delivery. We are in direct contact with the text and musical values of every song. But Hampson enjoys telling a story with a nice sense of drama, as in "Ach weh mir unglückhaftem Mann." This is immediately followed by a lied owned by sopranos, "Ruhe, meine Seele," where instead of the usual lullaby, Hampson introduces a note of angst that is quite powerful (even if the lowest notes of the song are a bit gravelly).

Collectors will recognize that almost every number is among Strauss's popular hits, with the exception of the title song, Notturno Op. 44 no. 1, which is rarely recorded. At over thirteen minutes, it belongs to the extended ballad form, mostly identified with Loewe but going back to examples by Schubert. Because the form usually includes many repeated stanzas, the freer form of Notturno, featuring an extended - and ravishing - violin obbligato played by Daniel Hope is more interesting, amounting to a dramatic soliloquy. Strauss composed the song in a single day in 1890, with a fervent (over-heated?) text by the late Romantic poet Richard Dehmel, then only 27; he is best known in musical circles for supplying the text that inspired Schoenberg's Verklarte Nacht. Strauss premiered the song in Berlin with orchestral accompaniment.

Curiosity about the work sent me to some excellent program notes for the San Francisco Symphony, where I found this comment: "Not­turno is per­haps the most aston­ish­ing achieve­ment among the ear­lier orches­tral lieder. It is more a tone poem for voice and orches­tra than a song and, though it was writ­ten sev­eral years before Salome and Elek­tra shook the musi­cal world, its use of har­monic struc­ture and instru­men­ta­tion to con­vey emo­tion and drama clearly presage what the com­poser would accom­plish in those two operas." Although intended as an orchestral song, Notturno's subject matter, a dream in which Death appears as anight wanderer playing the violin, works very well for piano and violin alone. The melodic inspiration isn't as strong as the moody atmosphere, but it's a riveting song.

Even a great mezzo like Janet Baker finds the intervals tricky in "Heimliche Aufforderung," which Hampson encompasses with a thrilling ease, and even more than Fischer-Dieskau, whose all but complete Strauss collection was a real accomplishment, he makes every song sound appropriate for a lower male voice, both musically and psychologically. I also find Wolfram Rieger, Hampson's longtime pianist, an equal partner (not always the case in some earlier recitals) in terms of his natural feeling and lyrical flow. The ethereal hush of "Morgen" is beautifully captured, for example. It's also remarkable to hear the vocal risks Hampson is willing to take in a challenging song like "Befreit." I risk gushing when I say that everything in this program is rendered with utmost artistry. Highly recommended.

Strauss, R:
Zueignung, Op. 10 No. 1
Die Nacht, Op. 10 No. 3
Winternacht, Op. 15 No. 2
Mein Herz ist stumm, Op. 19 No. 6
Ach weh mir unglückhaftem Mann, Op. 21 No. 4
Ruhe, meine Seele!, Op. 27 No. 1
Heimliche Aufforderung, Op. 27 No. 3
Morgen, Op. 27 No. 4
Traum durch die Dämmerung, Op. 29 No. 1
Sehnsucht Op. 32 No. 2
Das Rosenband, Op. 36 No. 1
Befreit, Op. 39 No. 4
Notturno, Op. 44 No. 1
with Daniel Hope (violin)
Freundliche Vision, Op. 48 No. 1
Die heiligen drei Könige aus Morgenland Op. 56 No. 6
Vom kunftigen Alter, Op. 87 No. 1
Und dann nicht mehr, Op. 87 No. 3
Im Sonnenschein, Op. 87 No. 4


Brahms: Klavierkonzert Nr. 2
Brahms: Klavierkonzert Nr. 2
Price: £11.83

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Pollini's third recording of the mighty Brahms Second Cto. may be his best - a magnificent success., 8 April 2014
Followers of Pollini's career will be aware that he has recorded the epic Brahms Cto. 2 twice before, in Vienna and Berlin, both times with Claudio Abbado. What would justify a third go-round? The first attraction is the recorded sound, done in concert last winter in Dresden. The warmth of the Dresden Staatskapelle has been captured beautifully, the balance with the piano is exemplary, and the piano itself sounds natural, without a hint of digital "ping" in the treble. The orchestral playing is fully the equal of what is heard on Pollini's two earlier performances.

I also like Christian Thielemann better than Abbado - his tempo choices keep the line moving, and he's very flexible at following his soloist. They pair in a natural way that's unusually devoid of rhetoric and grandiosity, two things the Brahms B-flat Cto. is prone to. There's also an intangible quality - Thielemann seems interested an involved. I enjoyed his conducting far more than Andris Nelson's in DG's most recent Brahms Second, with the galvanizing Helen Grimaud both leading and dominating the performance.

And Pollini himself? His mastery of the concerto's difficulties is undeniable, and now his phrasing has become exceptional. Not a bar sounds routine, and many passages are unmatchable by younger virtuosos. The same was true in the first installment of this series, an outstanding Brahms First Cto. with Thielemann. It's a pleasure to hear a reading where nothing is canned. The only reservation someone might have concerns the pianist's physical powers - he doesn't attack the big forte and fortissimo passages with heroic strength. He turned seventy-one the month this recording was made, and we can't expect him to have the force of his younger self. Sample the opening to the Scherzo, a test of stamina after the huge first movement. Pollini plays everything superbly, but if you expect Serkin's fierce attack, it's not quite there. (Pollini's timing for this movement was nearly the same in his first two recordings, at 8:45, and now is only a fraction slower, 15 seconds. Serkin, in his mono recording under Ormandy, took only 7:43.)

The natural expansiveness of the recorded sound is displayed beautifully in the cello solo that opens the slow movements - it would be hard to imagine better. Thielemann sets a nice walking pace, avoiding the slowness that may be set down to affection but winds up making the movement last forever. The pace is almost two minutes fast than the classic Fleisher-Szell on Sony, a surprise. Pollini plays with clarity and grace, a hallmark of the entire performance. A critical ear might find that the absolute precision of his earlier self is blurred, however. The finale, which is often in danger of sounding too light, is nicely balanced and suitably imaginative - there was no feeling of letdown from either pianist or conductor.

I am practically an uncritical admirer of this pianist, but in some recent concerts, the ones where Pollini didn't cancel due to illness, I've felt that age has brought some diminished playing. But this Brahms Second is exceptional by anyone's standards, and when you consider the really fine conducting and playing, the result is a magnificent success.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 8, 2014 5:21 PM BST


Shostakovich: Symphony No.14 [Vasily Petrenko/ LPO] [Naxos: 8.573132]
Shostakovich: Symphony No.14 [Vasily Petrenko/ LPO] [Naxos: 8.573132]
Price: £6.01

17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An engrossing, varied reading of a difficult work, 1 April 2014
Seeing that this release of the Shostakovich Fourteenth, a deeply gloomy work, debuted at #1 in classical recordings indicates how popular Vasily Petrenko has become and how notable his entire Shostakovich cycle - it will conclude with one more release (Sym. 13 "Babi Yar"). Probably more than any of his other projects on disc, this long project made Petrenko's name, because he showed that he could stand up to great Shostakovich conductors on the order of Bernstein, Mravinsky, Kondrahsin, and Rozhdestvensky with fresh ideas and his immense musical gifts.

His Fourteenth is "taut and unsparing," to quote the Financial Times, to which we can add knife-edged. Where Simon Rattle, in his excellent, much more plush version from Berlin, softened the relentless theme of death that ties these eleven poems together, Petrenko's spareness is more confrontational. As most Russian recordings of the score have done, he's chosen a bass soloist with a deep, resonant voice (Alexander Vinogradov) where Rattle chose the less lugubrious Thomas Quasthoff. The young Israeli soprano Gal James seems remarkably adept at Russian, and her delivery has a touch of Slavic throatiness, adding to the reading's air of authenticity. (For the exact opposite, turn to Haitink's recording with Fischer-Dieskau and Julia Varady, singing the poems in their original languages, thus introducing Spanish, German, and French.)

Perhaps I should have led with a succinct judgment: This performance is as engrossing and musically convincing as the best of Petrenko's prevoius Shostakovich. It's only disadvantage, which will bother only a few listeners, is that the small ensemble of strings and percussion isn't expanded on the scale of Rattle's account, and the playing as such isn't world class. Even if Petrenko had the Berlin Phil. at his command, however, I think he would have delivered the same existential reading, and to his credit, the mood is not relentlessly death-riddled. He gives us as much variety of tone and timbre as I've ever heard in this symphony.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 10, 2014 2:09 AM BST


Orff: Carmina Burana [Sarah Tynan, Andrew Kennedy, Rodion Pogossov] [LPO: LPO-0076]
Orff: Carmina Burana [Sarah Tynan, Andrew Kennedy, Rodion Pogossov] [LPO: LPO-0076]
Price: £7.36

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A restrained Carmina that focuses on the score's simple beauties, 21 Mar 2014
New versions of Orff's enduring favorite appear at regular intervals, but as popular as Carmina Burana remains, few newcomers come close to venerable classic recordings under Eugen Jochum (DG) and Fruhbeck de Burgos (EMI), with a raft of other golden oldies (Stokowski, Ormandy, Previn) filling in the legacy. The score was never recorded (or taken seriously?) by the great lights of Solti, Karajan, and Bernstein, however. No matter, there's always another step to take in improved sound, since Carmina Burana has always served a double function as sonic blockbuster.

This live account from Royal Festival Hall in April, 2013, doesn't aim for the gallery. In many ways it's a subtle, even strained performance, with especially clear singing from the excellent and apparently smallish chorus. They are among the best I can recall in this work, as is the demure children's chorus. As for the three soloists, they aren't starry by comparison with Fischer-Dieskau, Gerhard Stolze, and Gundula Janowitz for Jochum. No better trio has emerged in over fifty years. The solo singers here join in conductor Hans Graf's generally unexaggerated approach, but at a cost. Only a few of the characters really come to life with any vividness.

There's not much galloping excitement, for example, in baritone Rodion Pogossov's rousing tavern song, Estuans interius, although I like his edgy Slavic timbre. The tenor is called upon to soar high in his range portraying the piteous swan as it's being roasted, and Andrew Kennedy does quite well, singing in tune with comic plaintiveness. He comes close to the grotesqueries of legendary Stolze in this song. The light lyric soprano of Sarah Tynan sounds pure and fresh in her four songs, and the high tessitura of Dulcissime doesn't remotely throw her off. But there's not much room made for characterization.

I don't mean to damn with faint praise. The palm will always go to bold, garish recordings of a work painted in Technicolor. Still, it's appealing to hear an entry that focuses on the simple beauty of Orff's score, which this one does very nicely.


Symphonie Fantastique [Mariss Jansons, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra] [BR Klassik: 900121]
Symphonie Fantastique [Mariss Jansons, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra] [BR Klassik: 900121]
Price: £16.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A rethinking of Symphonie fantastique that sweeps the field, 7 Mar 2014
Even conductors can think of a masterpiece as a warhorse, and under that influence, they don't go out of their way to rediscover why a score became a masterpiece in the first place. Here Mariss Jansons breaks a long tradition of indifference toward the Symphonie fantastique. Every measure of the work is refreshed, listened to for every implied gasp, lurch, and fever dream of its hallucinating hero. The music is invested with liberal doses of Romantic spontaneity, finding intensity where other conductors find blah. In a word, Jansons is channeling his inner Charles Munch.

the conductor's intent is revealed early in the fist movement, where Berlioz's rhythmic irregularities crowd in. Jansons accentuates the agogic pace and underlines the eerie orchestration. These two tendencies are extended into all five movements - one notices that even the straightforward waltz in Un bal seems ghostly and strange. More striking still is the pastoral Scene aux champs, where no one before Jansons, not even Munch, has found a way to inject an air of strangeness - after all, the whole score is meant to be terrifying and surreal. It's eye-opening to hear the shepherds' serenade turn into shrieks. The cause is helped by the conductor's urgent pacing; too often this movement has been slowed to a trudge.

The really disturbing music belongs to the last two movements, of course, which depict a ride to the scaffold and a witches' black sabbath. Since even the most staid conductors put on their Halloween masks for this music, it's hard to out-Herod Herod. Jansons doesn't try. He relies on exact ensemble to bring out the musics color, abetted by remarkably good sonics, the kind we've become used to from BR Klassik's concert recordings, surely the best on the market. The Bavarian Radio SO makes such a golden noise that the usual Grand Guignol isn't missed. Much the same can be said of the finale, but it's here that Jansons seems a bit foursquare compared to Munch's wild rise. there's not much else to criticize about this vivid reading.

It was a stroke of programming genius to fill the CD out with Varese's Ionisation, since like Berlioz he dreamt up his own eerie sound world a century later. It's eeriness piled on eeriness, and the result is deliciously unearthly, especially in this crystal-clear performance. In all, this CD is a total success, and after a similarly triumphant War Requiem from him, I'm beginning to reassess Jansons as a potentially great conductor.


Schubert: Winterreise
Schubert: Winterreise
Offered by Fulfillment Express
Price: £10.00

2 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A glorious Winterreise from a singer soaring on a higher plane, 6 Mar 2014
This review is from: Schubert: Winterreise (Audio CD)
I can think of a few tenors in the modern era - Bjorling, Pavarotti, Wunderlich - who rose to a level beyond criticism for a period of time, when everything they touched turned to gold and the public was totally enthralled. Now Jonas Kaufmann has joined their ranks, and the magic formula remains the same: complete authority in everything he sings, combined with spontaneous inspiraiton that pours out effortlessly. His operatic portrayals of Werther, Lohengrin, Don Carlo, Don Jose, and Parsifal can't be touched by any other current tenor, and in addition his forays into lieder have been just as triumphant.

Adding Winterreise to Kaufmann's successes is significant, first, because the challenge is so great and second, because his vocal control has reached a peak few singers ever achieve. He phrases every line with musical subtlety and intense emotion at the same time. His grasp of the text shows the instincts of a poet, and yet the voice is allowed to ring out in powerful bursts as intimacy gives way to high drama. It's worthwhile watching Sony's promotional video for this CD on YouTube, where you can witness how the singer's hands and facial expressions mirror his total musical commitment. It's remarkable that any performing artist can sustain such a state over the course of 24 songs without for a second dropping into generic emoting.

The partnership of Kaufmann with his pianist, Helmut Deutsch, is long established, and Deutsch, an academic expert in lieder, does well here, offering more refined playing than I've sometimes heard from him. But he's not on the same plane as the singer artistically (in the long tradition of Winterreise, I think only Britten and Pears managed such a feat, although others might say Fischer-Dieskau with Brendel), and I can't help but wish that Kaufmann would partner on disc with a Helene Grimaud or Paul Lewis at least once.

In any event, this is the great Winterreise of our time and partial compensation for the fact that Wunderlich didn't live long enough to record it. Even if you have lived with these songs for a long while, each lied is given an eye-opening interpretation by Kaufmann, and along the way there are many vocal thrills. What more can one ask?
Comment Comments (11) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 8, 2014 10:27 PM BST


Strauss, R.: An Alpine Symphony
Strauss, R.: An Alpine Symphony
Price: £13.82

5 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An exhilarating ride in fabulous sound, 4 Mar 2014
The Saito Kinen is almost exclusively known to me under their founder, Seiji Ozawa, most recently in a box set commemorating the conductor's 75th birthday. Here the orchestra takes its first steps without Papa (Ozawa was still recuperating from cancer treatment), being led by the jack-of-all-trades British conductor Daniel Harding. Harding was a prodigy of the podium in his teens and became the protege of Simon Rattle, who had a similarly precocious start. Today Harding is young at 38, and to call him a jack of all trades is actually a compliment, since he is regularly invited to appear with all the eminent orchestras of Europe and America. His record of leading Richard Strauss isn't known to me, although I see a DVD of Ariadne auf Naxos from the Vienna State Opera (he recorded the Mahler Tenth with the Vienna Phil. on DG).

Decca has given this live alpine Sym. state-of-the-art sound, in keeping with their traditions - they did the same for Herbert Blomstadt's thrilling account with the San Francisco Sym. As exciting as that CD remains, the Kaito Sinen ranks a notch higher, perhaps, on the international scale. as the PR blurb notes, the orchestra "boasts the best Japanese players from the leading orchestras of Europe and North America as well as selected wind and brass principals from Berlin, Vienna, Philadelphia and Boston among others." It shows.

there are half a dozen excellent recordings of this showpiece vying for first place, ranging from Karajan anMehta with the Berliners to Haitink with both the Concertgebouw and LSO. Welser-Most, Wit, and Thirelemann are in the running, and if Vienna is your favorite orchestra for Strauss, they've recorded it Previn as well as Thielemann, both in thrilling sound. Harding keeps up with this cadre of excellence, and it may be that the sonics here are now a first choice. His interpretation is impeccable, lacking only the extraordinary sweep and authority of the Karajan, which was originally released in edgy, harsh early-digital sound but received a good remastering in the Karajan Gold series. For sheer exuberance I might put Fruhbeck de Burogs and Blomstedt a hair ahead, but their readings lack any subtle touches of phrasing that Harding does so beautifully here.

As you can tell, the Alpine Symphony is a pet of mine, and I'm happy to welcome another exhilarating ride.


Bruckner: Symphony No.9 (LSO/Haitink)
Bruckner: Symphony No.9 (LSO/Haitink)
Price: £10.80

13 of 23 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars *** 1/2 Dignity is carried to a fault in this staid Bruckner Ninth, 10 Feb 2014
Collectors of long standing may harbor a sense that Haitink's Bruckner is too plain, as evidenced by the symphony cycle he made decades ago with the royal concertgebouw. But since then he has grown, and the concert recordings over the past decade, either from Dresden or Amsterdam, have been magisterial. Age has made his energy level variable, however, and I felt that the Bruckner Fourth that preceded this Ninth on LSO Live was underwhelming. There is a special bond between him and the orchestra, so I had higher hopes for the new release.

It begins a bit staid and slack, I'm sorry to say, and one has to adjust, as the first movement unfolds, to Haitink's measured pace, which leaves room for loving phrases and the building of beautiful sounds rather than dramatic tension or momentum. It's no great fault if Bruckner seems to stand still in time (Celibidache made it his mission to prove that), and Giulini was revered for his similar Ninth from Vienna on DG. At an overall timing of 27:31, be prepared for stateliness. The Scherzo is paced a fraction slow, but that's not as significant as a certain rhythmic dullness that seems to continue the slog of the first movement. Only in the finale does the rapport between the musicians and a beloved maestro make a real impression as each phrase is caressed. stasis here feels like transcendence.

Throughout the recorded sound is fine - I've never been a complainer about the sonics that LSO Live achieves in the Barbican - and its clarity reveals many beautiful details. Overall, however, I found Haitink to be underwhelming once again, which is bad luck for the orchestra. It will hardly be credited in some circles, but I recall a broadcast Bruckner Ninth under Gergiev that was far better than this one.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 14, 2014 9:04 PM GMT


Brahms: Symphonies 3 & 4 [Vladimir Jurowski, London Philharmonic Orchestra] [LPO: LPO-0075]
Brahms: Symphonies 3 & 4 [Vladimir Jurowski, London Philharmonic Orchestra] [LPO: LPO-0075]
Price: £9.40

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Bright, forward, fast readings that deliver on Jurowski's own terms, 8 Feb 2014
As if to support the notion that Russian conductors don't get Brahms, Valery Gergiev maundered his way through Sym. 1 and 2, and now his younger countryman Vladimir Jurowski improves on the situation, but only just. In the postwar era it took decades before a post-Soviet conductor, Mikhail Pletnev, released a complete Beethoven symphony cycle suitable for an international audience (on DG), but I don't know of the same for Brahms, excepting concert readings under Mravinsky, which are certainly convincing despite dodgy sound; a Melodiya release of the four symphonies under Svetlanov didn't gain much traction in the West.

The influx of Russian conductors to the West has increased the visibility of their musical tradition. A survey of several thousand broadcast concerts from Europe and the Us showed that Prokofiev is being programmed as much as Mendelssohn, and the Rachmaninov First and Third Sym. are becoming almost as much a staple as the popular Second. but Jurowski knows that he's expected to conduct the Austro-German classics.

Here the Brahms Third and fourth get vigorous, often propulsive readings at a high level of assured accomplishment. Maybe this is the "new Brahms," but the whole enterprise feels one-dimensional. One thing Brahms is, musically and emotionally, comes down to layering and half-lights. They are missing here. I shouldn't lay the lack down to Russian-ness. Weingartner and Toscanini were impatient with the overlays in Brahms. In the first movement of the Third, Jurowski is so headlong that this could be updated Toscanini, except that to his credit, he doesn't adopt Toscanini's rigid metronomic phrasing.

but then the second movement is turned into another Allegro, barely indicating a change of mood (the marking is Andante), which sets the score up for having three movements in a row without sufficient variety in the pacing. the London Phil. made a Brahms cycle under Marin alsop that got a good reception; it was conventional to a fault, so perhaps it's better that Jurowski has ideas. The Scherzo is the best movement so far, lifted on a buoyant, flexible rhythm that makes it feel vibrant. I like the fact tha the finale is taken as a real Allegro, but there are shades of mystery at the outset that get entirely overlooked.

Jurwoski joins Chailly in presenting Brahms as a composer who needs saving from himself by tarting up the speed and reducing the romantic longing, but I don't agree. there's a live Brahms third on ICA, a recent release that fills out the gaps of those two conductors. Ironically, it's conducted by a Russian, Evgeny Svetlanov. If a composer has depth, aren't we obliged to explore it?

The Fourth begins at a traditional pace with more flexible phrasing, adding to the appeal of the performance. The first movement is an iconic example of ebb and flow, which Jurowski captures well. He also senses that the symphony is cast on a heroic scale, something that Chailly misses. I was thoroughly convinced, even if I prefer the evident struggle that Bernstein finds in the Fourth. by that standard, he wrestles with the angel of death in the slow movement while Jurowski hums a lullaby to it. but he's on secure ground with the long, singing line he wants to sustain, and that's half the battle.

The Scherzo of the Fourth plays itself under any competent conductor. Jurowski's is one of the fastest I've encountered, but he balances the sound to bring out those disturbing interjections in the basses and timpani. You don't often hear this movement played for thrills, but here it works. The finale represents one of Brahms's greatest achievements as a classicist (he goes back to Bach's organ works for the passacaglia form writ large) enveloped in Romantic intensity. Jurowski captures the intensity and delivers a forward-moving reading in bold colors. But the lack of a deeper dimension is still felt.

In all, these are crowd--leasing performances - and critic-pleasing,too, to judge by the London notices - well worth hearing. I'd place them considerably above Alsop's and above Jurowski's previous Brahms first and Second. I don't feel however, that real justice is done to Brahms's emotional and musical depths.


Britten: War Requiem [Maris Jansons] [BR Klassik:900120]
Britten: War Requiem [Maris Jansons] [BR Klassik:900120]
Price: £21.23

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A riveting War Requiem to rival the best - exciting and amazingly well recorded, 21 Jan 2014
For decades, Bavarian Radio has supplied the state Radio Sym. Orch. with consistently impressive sound, and here they go out of their way to capture the War Requiem's three-dimensional sound world, with different placements for the main orchestra, chamber orchestra, two chorus (including a boys' choir) and the three soloists. From the opening measures the recorded sound, even through two channels, is exceptionally atmospheric. Another good omen at the outset is Jansons's quick tempo; clearly he's not going to fall into the trap of lugubrious sentiment. Within minutes we hear Mark Padmore's passionate delivery of Wilfred Owen's first poem - we are off to a very good start, and by the end, the experience of listening becomes harrowing and exciting by turns.

Although instantly greeted as a masterpiece in 1962 when premiered at the reopening of the bomb-ruined Coventry Cathedral, the War Requiem is emotionally elusive. Is it protest or elegy? Does it view death in war as horrifying or poetically worth enshrining? Of course, the same questions faced Britten as a pacifist who met with considerable contempt and hostility when he and Peter Pears fled to America during WW II (they came back home before the cessation of hostilities, as did Sir Thomas Beecham). The London Sym. made a classic Decca recording immediately after the premiere, and their remake last year (on LSO Live) under Gianandrea Noseda to mark the Requiem's fiftieth anniversary was operatic and heartfelt. No other recorded version is quite as thrilling, although in concert Mstislav Rostropovich led heart-rending performances ("private" recordings can sometimes be found online).

Vocally, it's spooky how close Jansons' solo trio comes to the original. Gerhaher could be Fischer-Dieskau reborn in his strong, articulate delivery (a welcome change from his usual understatement); Padmore is Pears's equal in intensity, while Magee, coping with a treacherously difficult part, is nearly as strained and unsteady as Vishnevskaya but eloquent. I think I might like the chorus better here than in London; they are flexible, expressive, and beautifully in tune. Jansons is as exciting as Noseda, but not operatic. He accomplishes wonders through precision and steady emotional pressure. (Dare one say it? This is one score where not having an English conductor helps, as Noseda and Rostropovich already proved. )

I really can't thrust a straw between the Noseda and Jansons recordings, both are so riveting. Here the spectacular recorded sound must be counted as the best I've ever heard in this work, but then, the London performance drew more tears. Padmore is unforgettable, but so was Ian Bostridge for Noseda. You choose.

Emily Magee (soprano), Mark Padmore (tenor), Christian Gerhaher (baritone)

Chor and Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks & Tölz Boys' Choir, Mariss Jansons


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