June 11, 2009


Tchaikovsky: Orchestral Suites Nos. 1-4; Romeo and Juliet; Francesca da Rimini; Capriccio Italien. Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart and Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields conducted by Sir Neville Marriner. Phoenix Edition. $16.99 (3 CDs).

Prokofiev: Piano Concertos Nos. 1-5. Boris Berman, piano (Nos. 1, 4, 5); Horacio Gutiérrez, piano (nos. 2, 3). Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Neeme Järvi. Chandos. $18.99 (2 CDs).

Stravinsky: The Rake’s Progress. Jayne West, Jon Garrison, Arthur Woodley, John Cheek, Shirley Love, Wendy White; Gregg Smith Singers and Orchestra of St. Luke’s conducted by Robert Craft. Naxos. $17.99 (2 CDs).

     Here are three well-priced multi-CD sets that sound at least as good in these newly reissued forms as the performances did when originally released. Sir Neville Marriner’s version of the four Tchaikovsky orchestral suites – all composed between the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, a time when Tchaikovsky also wrote his Manfred Symphony – is the oldest recording here, dating back to 1987. But it still sounds quite fine, and even though Marriner is not conducting his usual Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in the suites, he elicits fine sound and excellent responsiveness from the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart. Marriner and his Academy are together for the three overtures on the third CD in the set, which were recorded in 1991 and 1992. All the performances are very well paced and nicely scaled – the largest and most symphonic movement in the suites, the final Tema con variazoni of No. 3, is as big, loud and brassy as anyone could wish, while the much more modest proportions of the “Mozartiana” suite, No. 4, come across in a performance with fine balance and pleasant flow. Suites Nos. 1 and 2 are the least often heard of the four, but Marriner does not give them short shrift, and in fact uncovers considerable beauty in No. 1 and a fine sense of bounce and drive in No. 2. Romeo and Juliet, Francesca da Rimini and Capriccio Italien all resound with enthusiasm, with the last of them making a very upbeat, encore-like finale to the set. The only real negative here is a set of booklet notes that is truly execrable, featuring inaccuracies, poor translation and omission of any discussion at all of Romeo and Juliet or Capriccio Italien. Luckily, information on these familiar pieces is readily available elsewhere.

     It is the controlling hand of Neeme Järvi – conducting the wonderful Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra rather than the Gothenberg Symphony with which he is more closely associated – that provides the continuity in the set of Prokofiev piano concertos, which feature equally virtuosic performances by two different pianists. Boris Berman’s three contributions date to 1989, Horacio Gutiérrez’ two to 1990. This was a period in which Järvi was quite intensely involved with the Gothenberg ensemble, which he led from 1982 to 2004; but he clearly rose to the occasion of directing the Royal Concertgebouw, a stronger and better-balanced orchestra with especially excellent brass. Both Berman and Gutiérrez are easily equal to the challenges of Prokofiev – or rather, both make it seem easy to surmount these works’ considerable difficulties. And both seem to relish the many purely virtuosic displays of these concertos while also enjoying a bit of respite in the slower and more delicate passages (of which, admittedly, there are not many). Berman’s readings may be very slightly more idiomatic and a touch more attuned to Prokofiev’s frequent sarcastic passages than those of Gutiérrez, but both pianists clearly understand this music deeply and play it with considerable flair.

     There is flair of a different kind in Robert Craft’s handling of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. This 1993 recording is as significant in its way as Stravinsky’s own Metropolitan Opera version of 40 years earlier. Craft was intensely involved with the creation of this opera – he provides some fascinating biographical and autobiographical details in his booklet notes – and he is at least as strong a conductor as Stravinsky himself, wonderfully bringing forth the composer’s irregular rhythms and his sensitive instrumentation. All the solo performers fit their roles very well indeed, with tenor Jon Garrison as Tom Rakewell especially well contrasted with soprano Jayne West as Anne Trulove; with bass-baritone John Cheek bringing just the right mixture of appeal and menace to Nick Shadow; and with mezzo-soprano Wendy White unusually affecting as Baba the Turk. The Gregg Smith Singers are a big reason for this performance’s success – they are as enthusiastic as they are attuned to the music. And the Orchestra of St. Luke’s has a textural transparency that helps Stravinsky’s musical lines come through with wonderful clarity and in excellent balance with the voices – although there is no libretto provided, the singing is so easy to hear and understand that none is necessary (and the summary of the action is excellent). This latest entry in the Naxos Robert Craft Collection confirms yet again, if further confirmation is needed, that Craft is the pre-eminent post-Stravinsky conductor of the music of the man with whom he worked intimately for more than 20 years.

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