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Grieg: Complete Symphonic Works Vol. 1
Grieg: Complete Symphonic Works Vol. 1
Price: £14.38

5.0 out of 5 stars An outstanding collection of Grieg's orchestral music, 25 April 2014
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Eivind Aadland's ongoing survey of Grieg's orchestral music for Audite with the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln has received much praise in the musical press and online and listening to this superbly performed first volume, presented in pristine sound quality, it is easy to see why. Aadland, a protégé of Yehudi Menuhin who grew up listening to and playing Grieg's music on a regular basis, is quoted in the liner booklet as saying, "The flavour of this music is in my blood," and that really shines through all the performances here - performances that come, it should be said, from an obviously meticulously rehearsed orchestra.

The quality of musicianship is apparent from the opening bars of the 'Symphonic Dances', with which the disc starts - rhythmic precision and élan in the woodwind, crisp and clear contributions from the timpani and a deft string section that nonetheless lacks nothing in terms of weight. Each of the dances is beautifully characterised and, although I know it sounds like a paradox, the music-making captures the earthy charm of Grieg's folk-influenced score while still providing extremely refined playing. Speeds are well-judged, spirited in the livelier sections, and the contrasting lyrical passages of these basically tripartite movements are played with the utmost sensitivity - that of the first dance is particularly haunting, as indeed is the equivalent section in the delightfully rumbustious extended finale.

The two suites from 'Peer Gynt' are no less wonderfully played, though the peregrinations of Peer Gynt himself and the varying emotional effects his decisions have on the other characters provide a wider range of moods for Grieg and the artists here to work with. I'm not sure I have heard 'Ingrid's Lament' played with such emotional import - it takes on an air of universal tragedy here rather than mere personal despair. 'Solveig's Song' is also beautifully and tenderly played, and in the famous 'Morning Mood' that opens the first suite the strings and horns have just the right degree of effulgence. In the lighter movements, such as 'Anitra's Dance' or the 'Arabian Dance' the orchestra's woodwind section, which acquitted itself so marvellously in the 'Symphonic Dances', gets the opportunity to shine again - which it undoubtedly does.

The 'Funeral March' was a new piece to me. Written in memory of a close and influential friend who died tragically young of consumption, this is music of grief and nobility, and there is more bitterness at the cruelty of fate in its course, I would say, than stoic acceptance or consolation. It is a deeply felt work that feels larger-scale than its mere seven or so minutes duration and receives a well-judged and intense performance from the woodwind, brass and percussion section of the Köln orchestra.

Anyone who already admires Grieg's music or wants to begin investigating it should listen to this disc - even if you already own recordings of some or all of the works here (and the release does contain some of his most famous music), these performances set a new standard I think in the Grieg discography and Audite's production values and audio quality are second-to-none. This unequivocally merits five stars and I really can't recommend it highly enough.


Duparc: Orchestral Songs; Lenore; Danse lent; Aux etoiles
Duparc: Orchestral Songs; Lenore; Danse lent; Aux etoiles
Price: £12.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable orchestral music by Duparc but primarily of interest for the songs and the fine artistry of Françoise Pollet, 22 April 2014
This attractive disc, which has been around for some time now, usefully comprises Duparc's extant works for orchestra, including eight of his songs which had originally been written for voice and piano. The symphonic poem 'Lenore' (based on the famous proto-Gothic ballad of Gottfried August Bürger that inspired Raff's fifth symphony among other musical works of the nineteenth century) is a compact Lisztian piece of musical storytelling in the vein of Saint-Saëns' 'Phaéton' or Franck's 'Le Chasseur maudit', which latter - the liner notes suggest - might have been influenced by it in terms of general outline and approach to form. In truth, the piece doesn't necessarily fare very well in the comparison to either of those works either in terms of atmosphere or orchestration but it does make for enjoyable listening on its own terms nonetheless. The performance here finds a liveliness in the score's 'allegro' episodes and displays a sensitivity in the slower outer sections that compensates for the lack of memorable melody or Gothic menace suggested by the background story.

Liveliness of orchestral interpretation is conspicuously absent from much of the remainder of the music here, Kaltenbach and the Orchestre Symphonique et Lyrique de Nancy providing strikingly slow renditions of the songs, though they do find an echo of 'Lenore' (and their performance of it) in the galloping accompaniment to 'Le Manoir de Rosamonde'. That aside, many of the songs here come across as decidedly languid in effect but I also have to say these lyrical gems sound very beautiful here so I can't really quibble with the performances - even when the interpretation verges on becoming too sweet for its own good, as in 'Chanson triste', Françoise Pollet's consummate artistry and wonderfully bright soprano voice saves the music from sounding indulgent or sentimental. Indeed, for the most part the pairing of Pollet with Kaltenbach and his forces seems to be a highly successful one: 'Au pays ou se fait la guerre' is both haunting and moving, Pollet bringing an operatic quality to the song's climax that is (for me, at least) a memorably spine-tingling moment, while 'Phidylé' is quite simply exquisitely beautiful. A fine account, orchestrally and vocally, of Duparc's striking 'La Vague et la Cloche' concludes the song selection satisfyingly.

Two short orchestral scores complete the programme, both of which I enjoyed hearing - 'Danse lent' rises to a brief climax but is perhaps (like 'Lenore') hobbled by a lack of distinct profile to the melodic writing; 'Aux étoiles' is a finely-detailed nocturne, a miniature masterpiece almost. Both receive sensitive performances here.

Sound quality is generally fine, although I would have appreciated a little more prominence given to the lower registers in the symphonic poem. The liner notes are relatively brief and the sung texts are provided in French only, though translations for most of them are relatively easily to be found online.

This is, I think, a recommendable release - primarily so for the artistry of Pollet, who really makes these songs her own, but also for usefully collecting Duparc's small orchestral output together on disc.


Various: Rare Works For Violin And Orchestra
Various: Rare Works For Violin And Orchestra
Price: £6.50

5.0 out of 5 stars Beautifully performed and recorded: a must-hear for any admirer of French Romantic music, 16 April 2014
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I don't very often review discs that have already been reviewed, particularly so comprehensively and with such insight as here by Someonewhocares2, but this utterly delightful recording surely merits more than just one five-star recommendation.

Concert programmes these days, with their heavy and self-limiting reliance on the "overture-concerto-interval-symphony" structure, don't leave much room for the sort of shorter pieces for soloist and orchestra that were so popular during the nineteenth century but this adventurous compilation goes to show just what pleasures contemporary audiences are missing. Lalo's 'Fantasie norvégienne' and Saint-Saëns' 'Morceau de Concert' are probably the two works here most likely to be familiar to listeners, if only from recordings, and Graffin provides sterling advocacy for both: the reading of the 'Fantasie norvégienne' here is one of the best I've heard, with a pleasingly full tone in the more Romantic lyrical passages (the atmospheric slow introduction, for instance, is beautifully evocative and haunting; the central 'Andante' heartfelt and touching) and a combination of adroitness and panache in the sparkling finale.

And these are qualities he brings to all the music here, which (needless to say, given the album's title!) contains some real rarities for the listener, their lack of familiarity another casualty of our current ossified concert repertoires. Guiraud is, of course, now really only known as the author of the discredited recitatives he provided for 'Carmen' but his engaging and nicely orchestrated 'Caprice' suggests that posterity might have been unfair on him and leads one to think his more substantial compositions might be worth investigating. The two most substantial and rewarding pieces here, to my ears, are the now stand-alone opening movement of Fauré's concerto (the 'Andante' in its orchestral guise now sadly lost and the finale never completed) and the 'Poème' by Canteloube: the Fauré balances lyrical grace with an assured handling of sonata form, leaving one with the regret that the work remained unfinished - although it may be slightly atypical in the context of his mature oeuvre as a whole, it is beautifully scored and melodically memorable, and I am extremely grateful for its inclusion on the disc; Canteloube's 'Poème', as the previous reviewer has stated, is a passionate and rhapsodic piece, the violin soaring above a rich tapestry of orchestral invention, lush in scoring and harmonic writing - again, one is left wondering what the remainder of Canteloube's output is like, aside from the perennially fresh 'Chants d'Auvergne'.

Philippe Graffin's eloquence and technical proficiency is matched by the finesse of the accompaniment provided by the Ulster Orchestra under Thierry Fischer and by the recording quality, which is finely balanced with a natural warmth and resonance that still allows every detail (particularly in the sophisticated scoring of the 'Poème') to be heard. It's good to have this recording, testament to the artistic spirit and commitment to high standards that Hyperion has consistently maintained, available under their budget-priced Helios banner and I enthusiastically endorse the previous reviewer's recommendation of it.


Zubiaurre: Symphonic Works
Zubiaurre: Symphonic Works
Price: £16.36

2.0 out of 5 stars Decent enough performances but - sadly - at the service of mostly uninspired music, 15 April 2014
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I bought this disc, one of a series that Claves devoted to Basque composers, on the basis of an online review that suggested the work was stylistically somewhere between Schubert's ninth and the last two symphonies of Brahms: an intriguing prospect, anyone interested in the Romantic symphony might think, but sadly I can't find anything in this routine and prolix score that points to either of the aforementioned composers in either style, sophistication or inspiration. Written in Rome in 1874, it could conceivably have been composed a few decades earlier so old-fashioned is the idiom: in itself that need not be a problem to the present day listener - after all, what does it matter in the 21st century that Zubiaurre was behind the times in which he lived if his music is enjoyable? - but I have to say it is a good while since I have come across a piece of orchestral music that is so four-square and tied to the bar line, so rhythmically plodding and so prolix. The material itself, though "tuneful", is hardly memorable nor to my ears particularly attractive (indeed, his themes or thematic units are frequently quite short-winded) and the orchestration is for the most part - in a word - drab: splashes of colour from the woodwind in the 'Andante maestoso' and 'Allegretto' third movement come as a welcome release from the interminable dominance of the strings but that section is used with the same lack of imagination as the brass section, which throughout the work emerges from the background periodically to cap a steadily and laboriously prepared for climax. The most striking use of the brass (in the context of the symphony at least) is at around the 6'40" mark in the 'Andante' when it erupts theatrically from the working out of Zubiaurre's undistinguished primary material; brief moments like this and the introduction of repeated cymbal crashes at what Zubiaurre evidently deemed key points in his musical discourse only reinforces the impression that the composer was in thrall to second-rate, mid-century Italian opera when he penned this piece.

The remaining pieces on the disc comprise two brief preludes from operas and a similarly short concert piece for cello and orchestra. Unsurprisingly, the preludes draw upon a similar Italianate background to the symphony but the quality of the music, even given their necessarily piecemeal quality and lack of development, is far finer - there are some moments of stirring drama and notably more fluent and memorable melodic material in both works. Perhaps the stage rather than the concert hall was more Zubiaurre's metier? Certainly, although there is nothing original or innovative about either piece, were you to hear them before the stage curtain rises your interest in what is to follow might well be piqued. The concert piece also makes for attractive listening - it's not really clear from the perfunctory liner notes whether the melody used is a Basque one or a folk-song at all, but the piece does have a melancholy charm that treads the line between affecting and sentimental.

Those three orchestral pieces put together only make up a quarter of the disc's playing time and taken singly none of them are of a great deal of substance - enjoyable though they might be, I wouldn't say they make it worth investing in the disc. On the plus side, the sound quality is decent and the performances more than adequate - in the symphony, at first I wondered whether the plodding nature of Zubiaurre's music was inherent or the fault of the conductor but listening to the disc a couple more times convinces me that more dynamism on the podium would merely result in the repetitive music sounding faster rather than any better.

It probably doesn't need saying but I can't really recommend this to anyone who doesn't have a specialist interest in the music of the Basque region (not that anything here sounds Basque or even vaguely Iberian) - as far as I'm concerned this release is a dud and I can't see it being taken down from the shelves by me again when it is in competition with so many other enjoyable and interesting rediscoveries from this era.


Robert Kahn: Piano Quartet No. 2, Serenade for String Trio etc.
Robert Kahn: Piano Quartet No. 2, Serenade for String Trio etc.
Price: £14.97

4.0 out of 5 stars Fine musicianship and recording quality make this a rewarding introduction to a little-known composer, 14 April 2014
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Until recently I hadn't even heard of the German composer Robert Kahn: it was while perusing forthcoming releases from CPO that I came across a multi-disc set of his complete piano trios (at time of writing not yet released) in the listings and, wary of forking out a potentially substantial sum on the music of someone of whom I knew absolutely nothing, I decided to search around for previous recordings of his music - and so I came across this delightful and varied survey of his chamber and vocal output.

The Piano Quartet in A minor, which opens the programme, strikes me as a fine piece - not one that pushes at the boundaries of tonality as so many of his contemporaries' works were doing at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but one of consummate craftsmanship, with enough imagination and lyrical impulse to ensure it still sounds fresh despite its sometimes conservative credentials. The minor key signature lends the music an impassioned, occasionally even impetuous, quality in the outer movements - the well-crafted sonata-form 'Allegro energico' that opens the work does have its fair share of energy but Kahn's melodic gifts smooth out many of the edges and there are several passages of poetry (the magical and delicate close of the exposition section, for instance) during its course, culminating in a memorable recapitulation and coda. The finale, marked 'Vivace, ma non troppo', revisits the more tempestuous tone of parts of that opening movement and dwells on them at greater length - indeed, this spirited movement is something of a tour-de-force and the Hohenstaufen Ensemble capture its headlong sense of momentum during the more animated sections perfectly. These outer movements frame a central pair that are also similar in tone - although one is marked 'Larghetto' and the other 'Allegretto grazioso', neither displays extremes of tempo and each combines lyrical warmth with delicate, scherzo-like writing. I wouldn't consider this work a rediscovered masterpiece by any stretch but it does repay repeated listening and I'm glad to have made its acquaintance.

The Serenade for String Trio hails from much later in Kahn's life, just a few years before his Jewish background forced him to flee to Britain from the Nazi regime. In some respects it is a product of its time - mostly gone is the Romantic idiom, replaced by an language that is more succinct and that occasionally makes use of a slightly more astringent harmonic palette than we've heard heretofore on the disc; that said, Kahn's knack for penning engaging thematic material is still to the fore here, not least in the sweet-toned, original melody that is the basis of the inventive, variation-form final movement and in that sense the composer's Romantic-era heritage is still apparent. Despite the conciseness of expression, I wouldn't describe this as a wholly Modernist or Neo-Classical work. With the finale coming in at half the length of the entire serenade, the first two movements feel almost prelude-like but despite their concision they still pack quite a punch: the opening 'Allegretto grazioso e moderato' contains some masterly contrapuntal writing, foreshadowing a dominant feature of the finale; the 'Vivace' second movement is an animated scherzo, with scintillating and sharply etched writing for the strings in its outer sections. Of all the enjoyable music here, this is the piece that has impressed me most, I think - the ingenuity of part-writing, not least in the beautifully-judged extended set of variations, the diverse and imaginative scoring for the three instruments and the liveliness of invention overall.

Both these instrumental works frame a song cycle for voice(s) and piano trio, based on texts from Paul Heyse's 'Der Jungbrunnen', his first published book. There is some attractive and melodious music here and, though for the most part none of the songs plumb great emotional depths, it seems to me that neither do the original poems so Kahn's approach seems well-judged. Of the set, 'Waldesnacht du Wunderkühle' and 'In der Mondnacht' really are quite lovely idylls, the scoring for piano trio adding much to their atmosphere, and 'Es geht ein Wehen durch den Wald' concludes the cycle on an appositely uplifting note but there are many deft and rewarding touches throughout this conservative but genial work.

Julie Sophie Wagner, soprano, and Michael Nagy, baritone, acquit themselves well in the song cycle both musically and in terms of how they interpret the texts and they are typical of the high performance standards and apparent affection for the music that all the artists display throughout this disc. The sound quality is excellent, wonderfully clean and clear but with a natural warmth to it but in terms of presentation, Hänssler Classic let themselves down by failing to provide either the sung texts or (for the international market) translations - a minor point, perhaps, when translation tools and many texts are to be found on the internet but it would not have cost very much to print them in the booklet and, as some passages of the liner essay are a little self-indulgent, maybe the space could have been better used to provide them and enhance listeners' enjoyment.

All that said, this is a rewarding disc, sure to appeal to anyone interested in the byways of Romantic and Post-Romantic German chamber music - certainly it has whetted my appetite for hearing the set of Kahn's piano trios which, as I mentioned above, is due to be released later this year.

A warm recommendation.


Reicha: Complete String Quartets [Kreutzer Quartet] [Toccata Classics: TOCC 0040]
Reicha: Complete String Quartets [Kreutzer Quartet] [Toccata Classics: TOCC 0040]
Price: £14.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Required listening - more masterly string quartets, superbly performed and recorded, 27 Mar 2014
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The first volume* of this ambitious project to record all of Anton Reicha's extant string quartets really was a revelation, the sort of disc that leaves you marvelling that such masterly music can have languished in obscurity for so many years, and this latest release has proved to be an equally rewarding and intriguing listening experience, reinforcing that Reicha was a composer with a highly individual and recognisable musical voice.

A comparison of the opening movements of the two quartets here reveals both the diverse range of Reicha's compositional methods but also some characteristic features common to both: that of the earlier work, in E flat major, is an expansive structure built on the sort of Olympian scale that we tend to associate with some of Beethoven's works of this period (one of the booklet essays discusses the close personal and artistic relationship between the two composers during this period), indeed it is suggested that it was the longest single movement written in the genre at this time - the Classical poise of its initial statements give way to some fascinating and quirky digressions and changes of mood that ensure there are no longueurs during its course; the second booklet essay, written by the Kreutzer Quartet's first violinist Peter Sheppard Skaerved relates this 'Allegro moderato' to the "discursive, but directed" dialogue of the salons at the time (centres of artistic and intellectual discourse for educated society, the later - often pejorative - moniker "salon music" to describe the sentimental musical entertainment of the middle classes of the nineteenth century is a world away from what we have here in both time and style).

The corresponding movement of the C minor quartet couldn't be further away from its predecessor's conversational manner: its slowly unfolding opening material launches a dramatic, descending thematic gesture that might be familiar enough in its motivic shape from many other 'Sturm und Drang' minor key works but almost immediately the composer confounds expectations with the abruptness of his transition (if one can call it a transition) to the more lyrical second subject - however, if you are expecting a release of tension here you'd be mistaken as that theme in the first violin is pitted against a galloping rhythmic motif played forte by the other three strings; the closing material of the exposition ratchets up the tension again. It's a striking opening not just for its terseness of expression but also for the vigour of Reicha's string writing, which is quite unlike anything I have heard in quartets dating from before this period. The sharply drawn, frequently unexpected contrasts of dynamics, scoring and modulation remain a feature throughout the development and recapitulation.

There are further similarities and disparities throughout the remaining movements here. Consider the two slow movements, for example: that of the C minor work creates a hauntingly beautiful and memorable oasis of calm from the simplest of materials; with the instruction to play "sempre piano e sostenuto", its canonic writing lends it an archaic air that still sounds innovative; the 'Largo' of the E flat major quartet, with its plangent primary theme and atmospheric tremolo writing looks forward, perhaps, to the "Scène aux champs" by Berlioz - the use of tremolo reminded me, incidentally, of Eberl's pretty much contemporary 'Grand Sonate', Op.39, which sounds a similarly proto-Romantic note in its central 'Adagio molto espressivo'. The finale of the C minor quartet is a masterpiece of metrical sleight of hand and disconcerting thematic manipulation, simultaneously engaging and mentally stimulating; the fugal closing movement of the E flat major, displaying a Haydnesque wit in its brevity (at just under three minutes length, it is less than a fifth of the duration of the work's opening 'Allegro') but one matched with a punchy sense of energy that is very much Reicha's own - for a brief while, we are in the pithy sound world of the C minor quartet again, albeit maybe with a more of a smile behind the brusqueness.

It's hard to imagine the incisive and deeply-considered performances that the Kreutzer Quartet bring to these works being improved upon any time soon: it's evident that the four musicians here believe fully in Reicha's significance in the development of the string quartet and, perhaps even more importantly, in the intrinsic value of the music per se. Quite often Reicha's writing sounds taxing both technically and in terms of its emotional demands but the Kreutzer Quartet remain unfazed by whatever the composer presents them with - Peter Sheppard Skaerved describes a typical rehearsal of Reicha's quartets being punctuated with 'exclamations of disbelief, wonder, outrage and laughter: "He's not doing that!" and "I don't believe it!"' and that sense of discovery and sheer engagement shines through the music-making here.

If you combine all that with Toccata's consistently high quality production values - the two essays in the accompanying booklet are models of their kind, comprehensive and stimulating - and excellent sound quality, you have here a disc that surely merits more than the mere five stars that Amazon provides as its highest rating. This is required listening for anyone in interested in the string quartet or chamber music in general and I am looking forward even more to future volumes in this estimable survey.

Highly recommended.

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* Reicha: Complete String Quartets [The Kreutzer Quartet] [Toccata Classics: TOCC 0022]


Zemlinsky: Symphonies [Martyn Brabbins, BBC National Orchestra of Wales] [Hyperion: CDA67985]
Zemlinsky: Symphonies [Martyn Brabbins, BBC National Orchestra of Wales] [Hyperion: CDA67985]
Price: £13.25

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent performances and production values provide a fascinating insight into the music of Zemlinsky's formative years, 25 Feb 2014
I've had a good deal of affection for these two early symphonies by Zemlinsky since I first discovered James Conlon's pioneering recording of them for EMI back in the late 1990s*: in the context of the composer Zemlinsky was to become they are undoubtedly atypical works and, as products of his conservatoire training, it is also true to say that they are "apprentice" pieces - yet that label belies the substance and quality of the music that we have here. Several times when listening to these two works I've wondered what sort of a symphony cycle Zemlinsky might have produced had he been born a generation or so earlier - one can hardly talk of promise unfulfilled, of course, when one considers the masterly works he produced in his maturity but it is tempting to think that he might well have flowered into another major Viennese symphonist in the received tradition had his creative development begun earlier than it did.

As my fellow reviewer has pointed out, there are several palpable influences to be found in both works, revealing the composer's keen awareness of the musical developments of his time, but the most significant is that of Brahms; indeed, Zemlinsky himself described how he and his fellow admirers of the latter at the conservatoire became wittily known as "Brahmins" for their devotion to the elder composer's music and compositional methods. The passacaglia finale of the second symphony is an obvious tribute to the then recently deceased Brahms but his influence is to be felt throughout the fabric of both works - the way Zemlinsky often develops his material through the variation of sometimes quite small melodic cells and the warmth of the scoring: the trio of the D minor symphony's 'Allegro scherzando' rises to a splendidly rich climax, for example, and the subsequent slow movement positively glows, particularly so here in Brabbins' beautifully judged performance and Hyperion's excellent audio quality.

For a first venture into symphonic writing, the D minor symphony is by any stretch an accomplished work of great promise (the opening 'Allegro ma non troppo' displays a sterling command of musical structure, to which the dramatic but inevitable-sounding recapitulation bears witness) and makes for extremely satisfying listening but the second symphony that Zemlinsky wrote five years later displays real mastery of the genre. More expansive than its predecessor and still making use of traditional symphonic forms, in terms of idiom it is freer and more varied: the melodic material has more individuality; in terms of harmony and scoring, influences other than Brahms are more apparent here, notably echoes of Wagner (what Gavin Plumley in his liner note terms, "the call of Siegfried and the Mastersingers from the Hofoper across the Ringstrasse"). There is I think, as well as increased individuality, increased confidence here - following the sonorously scored 'Sostenuto' introduction, that self-assurance is apparent in the uplifting forward-momentum of the opening 'Allegro', its expressive variety and more sophisticated and colourful orchestration (the brass, for instance, are used much more freely and imaginatively), yet the movement as a whole still displays an admirably cogent sonata form structure. And this marriage of more sophisticated technique and more openness to musical developments of the time is manifest across the work as a whole, be it in the vitality of the 'Scherzando' second movement with its hints of Mahler or in the beautiful 'Adagio'. As an aside, I have to say, while I do agree about this movement's nobility of utterance, I don't find it a "dreamy" movement as Gavin Plumley does - there seems to me to be too much contrast (and occasionally drama) in it for that epithet to work completely satisfyingly, although I could be tempted to apply the description to the corresponding movement in the first symphony.

Although I will always be grateful to James Conlon for his advocacy of Zemlinsky in general (he played a significant role in the long overdue reappraisal and restoration of the composer) and his rescue of these two works in particular, I do think this new Hyperion release is the one to go to if you are interested in hearing these early works. Sometimes Brabbins is more expansive in his treatment of the music, sometimes - as in his tauter reading of the passacaglia finale to the second symphony - he finds more focussed energy in it but it is always in service of the work's overall structure and I think it is hard to imagine finer advocacy than this on disc for the two symphonies coming along any time soon. Hyperion's sound quality is second-to-none too, with natural warmth and impeccable clarity - the EMI release by no means suffered from poor sound but I do think this new issue is markedly better.

These two symphonies might not be indicative of Zemlinsky's mature music but they do make for a fascinating insight into where he came from - and all the more so, perhaps, for where he ended up creatively - and taken purely as symphonies on there own merits they also provide repeated rewarding listening.

Warmly recommended.

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* Zemlinsky: Symphony 1 & 2


Franck: Piano Trios (Trio E major (1835), Trio Op. 22 E flat major, Trio Op. 53 D major)
Franck: Piano Trios (Trio E major (1835), Trio Op. 22 E flat major, Trio Op. 53 D major)
Price: £15.08

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Audite's rewarding survey of Eduard Franck's piano trios completed, 19 Feb 2014
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With this latest release from German label Audite we now have all of Eduard Franck's extant piano trios available on disc and what a rewarding experience it has been getting to know this unduly neglected music. Violinist Christine Edinger - who has been a stalwart of the Franck revival throughout Audite's recordings of both the composer's chamber music and some of his orchestral music - is absent here, the music being performed by the Swiss Piano Trio, a relatively young group which has already distinguished itself in recordings of Mendelssohn and the Schumanns (Robert and Clara): happily, the high standards of musicianship that have marked Audite's survey of Franck's oeuvre are maintained in this new release.

There are three trios here, all of them more concise than the two already recorded by Audite, and to all intents and purposes they hail from across his career - the earliest in E major (1835) was only recently published for the first time, the second (also in E major) was published in 1859, while the final work in D major is dated 1886 on its manuscript, though the booklet writer warns us that the high opus number (Op.53) was assigned by Franck's son, Richard, after the composer's death and that the trio cannot definitively be confirmed as "a late work" (there is a hiatus of two decades during which Eduard Franck seemingly lost interest in publishing any of his compositions). In a sense none of this is of great import - Franck seemingly found his personal voice early on in his creative career and took no interest in the more radical musical developments of the Romantic period.

Of the works here, only the trio of 1835 could possibly be said to stand out from the remainder of Franck's chamber music stylistically and then only in minor details: the piano part is a dominant presence, as in so much chamber music of the 1820s and 1830s, and the work's relatively small scale (it plays for around 20 minutes in total, half the duration of the trios Audite previously recorded by Franck*) is perhaps a sign of the young composer's inexperience at handling extended musical structures (the booklet surmises that this trio was written as a direct result of the lessons with Mendelssohn that commenced in 1834). In other respects, however, it already foreshadows many of the characteristics of his mature music - his melodic fecundity, such as in the uplifting primary theme of the opening 'Allegro' that plays an important role throughout the movement; his very personal warmth of expression, a marked harmonic bitter-sweet quality that is quite distinct from the respective idioms of Schumann or Mendelssohn, for example, two composers who were surely formative influences on his style; and, of course, the verve and sense of forward momentum he brings to his faster movements - the persistently bubbling piano writing already mentioned contributes much to the graceful flow of the music here and the scherzo is typically vivacious and engaging (and, furthermore, remarkable for the economic use of thematic material in achieving this).

With the remaining two trios we have mature Franck - the slightly more extended opening movements of both trios and the greater emotional range they display are evidence surely of his increased experience and increased confidence in using what seems (on the evidence of his chamber output as a whole) to have been an innate gift for handling sonata form. That of the Op.22 trio is designated 'Allegro moderato con espressione', which accounts for the cantabile quality of the primary theme but he also introduces more animated - more light-hearted, perhaps? - material and it is testament to his talents that he melds these contrasting elements into a convincing whole. The 'Andante con moto' here and the 'Andante' of the D major trio, Op.53, are movements of considerable ardour (the heartfelt writing for the strings, for example, in that of Op.22 or the comparable lyricism in the 'Andante' of Op.53) and poetry - listen to his striking use of the piano's lower registers at the close of the D major's 'Andante' (and one might also draw attention in that respect to the haunting interplay of violin and cello in the trio-section of Op.22's scherzo).

With the E major trio, Op.22, we are in the unusual position of having a comparative recording for a major Eduard Franck work, this having been included on a Naxos disc of 2012 devoted to the composer's music**: I have to say that, much as I enjoyed getting to know the trio for the first time courtesy of the artists on that release - and there is no doubting their musicianship - the Swiss Piano Trio's performance will be the one I return to most often, as they seem to find more of the poetry in Franck's lyrical music without losing any momentum and have a lighter, more effervescent touch in the finale. I also have to say that I am inclined to agree with the reviewer of the Naxos release in that there is a slightly unpleasant, acid tone to Shmuel Ashkenasi's violin in that recording (though I should say that some other reviewers either don't seem to hear it or don't find it a problem).

The sound quality here, as I've come to expect from Audite, is impeccable - warm and natural and beautifully balanced. Combined with the polished and sympathetic musicianship on offer here from the Swiss Piano Trio, this disc is undoubtedly another feather in Audite's cap and yet another valuable addition to both the Eduard Franck discography and to our knowledge of German chamber music during the Romantic period.

Enthusiastically recommended - to confirmed admirers of the composer and general listener alike.

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* Franck - Piano Trios Op.11, Op.58

** Franck: Piano Trio Op. 22 (Shmuel Ashkenasi/ Yehuda Hanani/ James Tocco) (Naxos: 8572480)


Erkel: Bank Ban
Erkel: Bank Ban
Price: £6.42

5.0 out of 5 stars Compelling performances all round in this recording of Hungary's dramatic and impassioned "national opera", 23 Jan 2014
This review is from: Erkel: Bank Ban (Audio CD)
Although Erkel had already achieved considerable success in his native Hungary with previous operas on patriotic historical themes, particularly 'Hunyadi László' of 1844, it was this 1861 work 'Bánk bán' that was to be adopted as the Hungarian national opera. Listening to this strongly-cast and well-performed recording of his full-blooded score from 2001 (this budget-priced reissue dates from 2011) one can easily understand why it was such a success. One can only assume that the language barrier has been behind this still popular work becoming well-known in Western Europe and beyond, as it really is - in my opinion - as impressive and as inspired a work as many operas that have been staples of the repertoire since the nineteenth century.

The idiom here reflects the dominance of Italian opera across the continent in the central years of the nineteenth century (think mid-period Verdi for a general idea of Erkel's approach and style) though - much like Glinka had done in Russia with 'A Life for the Tsar' or Moniuszko in Poland with 'Halka', for example, a decade or so earlier - Erkel frequently, though not exclusively, colours his the Italianate music with Hungarian melodies and rhythms to give the work a distinctive national flavour. Culturally important though that might have been at the time, such details might render the opera a mere historical curiosity were Erkel not such a fine composer per se - and on the basis of this work, he evidently was and one with an instinctive grasp of the theatre. The opera opens undemonstratively with a short and restrained prelude for orchestral and the curtain rises 'in media res' with the end of a conversation between two members of the Hungarian court but from then on the opera moves quite swiftly along with a strong sense of dramatic pace. Erkel has a pronounced melodic gift, which (whether in the Hungarian style or in a more generic Italianate manner) is manifest throughout the score in the recitatives as well as the defined musical numbers and an obvious talent for writing characterful ensembles: the duet between Bánk bán's wife Melinda and her would-be seducer (and ultimately her rapist) Otto in act one is a case in point as is the large-scale ensemble with chorus that concludes the same act. The final two acts are shorter but even more potent emotionally, with an impassioned and memorable duet for Bánk bán and Melinda in act two, closely followed by the dramatic scenes in which Bánk bán confronts and kills Queen Gertrúd, Otto's sister. There are some equally fine solo numbers too - the hero's eloquent aria at the start of that act is an obvious crowd-pleaser but there are some beautiful and strikingly imaginative scenes too such as Melinda's 'mad scene', the scoring of which includes prominent writing for viola d'amore, harp, cor anglais and cimbalon as well as introducing some haunting choral writing (this scene is perhaps the most obvious example of Erkel's command of his instrumental forces but the whole opera reveals him to be a masterly orchestrator, I should add).

The recording was made for a film version of the opera and is, as I have noted, strongly cast. Attila Kiss B., a dramatic tenor with a fine voice, provides an ardent portrayal of the title role and Attila Reti is convincingly devious as the trouble-making knight, Biberach, upon whose Iago-like machinations hinge many of the twists and turns that propel the drama to its tragic denouement. Andrea Rost is touching as Bánk bán's slandered wife, Melinda - her entreaty to her husband to spare their son from his rage in act two is one of the highlights of the score. Eva Marton sings the role of Queen Gertrúd - perhaps her voice has lost a little of the bloom it had in her youth but her musicianship and artistry make hers a commanding performance. Under Tamás Pál's baton the pace is kept moving forward without ever feeling hurried and one feels that the stage is not far away from all the artists here, which adds to the vividness of the performance as a whole (the opera remains a regular feature at the Hungarian State Opera). Although I have occasionally seen this set described as a live recording, the booklet of the original Teldec release (which is the issue I own) states that it is a studio recording from 2001 , an impression which the excellent sound quality and slightly forward placing of the voices reinforces as well as the fact that there is no indication that the singers move from the microphones and no extraneous noise.

This opera made an immediate impression on me as soon as I listened to it and repeated hearings have served only to reconfirm that this is music of high quality. It's good to see it has been re-issued as a budget-priced Warner set. The original Teldec release* contains a handsome booklet with copious notes, photographs (presumably from the film version) and the full libretto in four languages: I've tried in vain to confirm whether or not this re-issue contains a libretto - there is nothing I can find online to indicate that it does and a search of the Warner Classics website draws a complete blank; based on my experiences of these Warner budget reissues I am inclined to think it doesn't. Frustrating though that is for anyone who buys this re-release, I would still strongly urge anyone interested in opera from the Romantic period to take the opportunity to snap up this recording while it still remains in the catalogues - it really is that good, musically and artistically.

Highly recommended.

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* Bank Ben (Pal, Kiss B, Marton, Rost, Honved Male Chorus)


Burgmüller: Piano Concerto Op.1 / Entr'actes Op.17 / Overture "Dionys" Op.5
Burgmüller: Piano Concerto Op.1 / Entr'actes Op.17 / Overture "Dionys" Op.5
Price: £15.34

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Frieder Bernius follows up his recording of Burgmüller's symphonies with an equally fine recording of his piano concerto, 20 Jan 2014
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This new release from Carus forms a companion volume to the same label's recording of Norbert Burgmüller's two symphonies in 2010* and together they provide the listener with (as far as I am aware) all the composer's surviving music for orchestra: there are a couple of "firsts" here too - the four 'Entr'actes', Op. 17, are a world-premiere recording and the remaining works on the album are heard on disc in period instrument performances for the first time too.

Burgmüller's piano concerto is a remarkable one in several respects, not least for the fact that he produced such a substantial, accomplished work as his opus one and - presumably - as his first piece for orchestra; but there are other innovations too - the key itself (F sharp minor) is an unusual one, the use of trombones in his orchestra is a novelty in piano concertos of the period (perhaps the influence of his sometime teacher, Louis Spohr, is to be noted here) as is the introduction of a prominent part for cello solo in the central 'Larghetto con moto', the latter an element that seems to have perplexed at least one contemporary music critic. Schumann was an ardent admirer of the composer's music and the haunting harmonies of the concerto's opening bars serve to explain why, Schumann surely responding as a fellow artist to the emphasis on poetry rather than grandiose statement that marks this introductory passage: increasing tension and a quickening of pace leads to a turbulent, "Sturm und Drang" orchestral tutti but this 'Allegro ma non troppo' remains throughout very much in the spirit of the burgeoning Romantic movement and, while providing self-evidently difficult solo writing for the piano, it is very much conceived symphonically and eschews empty pianistic display or rhetoric (the latter always anathema to Schumann). Not every aspect of the concerto is a success nor would one necessarily expect it to be in a composer so inexperienced - the finale in particular strikes me as slightly too long for its material, although there is much to enjoy in it, and perhaps the thematic material itself isn't always as memorable or well-defined as one might wish - but overall this is an atmospheric and enjoyable concerto, one which goes some way to explain why not just Schumann but also Mendelssohn and, later on, Brahms amongst others held Burgmüller in such high regard.

The concerto is the most substantial work here but the overture to the projected opera, 'Dionys', is also a very impressive piece, striking for the nobility of its slow introduction and the febrile urgency of the music that follows - indeed, sometimes it seems to me to foreshadow (albeit more conventionally) that same quality in Schumann's 'Manfred' overture. Four short orchestral bagatelles conclude the disc - labelled 'Entr'actes' by the composer and grouped together as his Op.17, it is unclear whether or not these were composed with a particular play or production in mind; it seems most likely that they were generic pieces written to be used by theatrical orchestras as and when such music was required. Certainly there doesn't seem to be any over-arching tone to the four pieces to link them together poetically - as four discrete miniatures, however, they are eminently charming and good to have on disc even if not perhaps especially compelling listening.

The concerto has been recorded several times, most notably in recent years on the MDG label with Leonard Hokanson as pianist and Gernot Schmalfuss conducting the Wuppertal Symphony Orchestra**; the same release also contains the 'Dionys' overture and the composer's second symphony. I have to say that in terms of quality there is little to choose from between the MDG release and this new recording - both are recommendable overall and both pianists provide sympathetic and technically accomplished performances of the concerto; for those who have an inherent antipathy to historically informed playing and period instruments, the MDG performance is on modern instruments - for those who don't mind either way, Hokanson and Schmalfuss possibly focus more on the poetry of the concerto whereas Koch and Bernius find a slightly more heightened level of drama and excitement in the music; both strike me as equally valid and satisfying interpretations of the score.

For admirers of the composer, like myself, there can surely be no question about whether to invest in this new release - and they won't be disappointed, I am certain, particularly when the sound and production values match the high quality of the artistry on offer here. If you are curious about Burgmüller's music but haven't heard any yet or don't like period instruments, the aforementioned disc from MDG provides a very fine introduction to the composer with his three most impressive orchestral works sympathetically performed and recorded in very good sound. Taken on its own merits, however, this new Carus disc is most definitely as worthy of five stars as its predecessor and comes warmly recommended.

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* Burgmüller: Symphonies No. 1 & 2

** Hokanson/Wuppertal Symphony Orchestra


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