December 19, 2013


Rossini: Complete Overtures, Volume 3—Maometto II (1822 Venice version); L’Italiana in Algeri; La Cenerentola; Grand’ overtura ‘obbligata a contrabbasso’; Matilde de Shabran, ossia Bellezza, e cuor di ferro; La cambiale di matrimonio; Tancredi. Prague Sinfonia Orchestra conducted by Christian Benda. Naxos. $9.99.

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4; Capriccio Italien. Gürzenich-Orchester Köln conducted by Dmitrij Kitajenko. Oehms. $19.99 (SACD).

Grieg: Scenes from Olav Trygvason; Two Choruses and Incidental Music from Sigurd Jorsalfar; Landkjenning; Edmund Neupert: Resignation (orch. Grieg). Yngve Søberg, Helge Rønning, Magne Fremmerlid, Nina Gravrok, Marianne E. Andersen; Malmö Chamber Choir, Lund Student Singers, Malmö Opera Chorus, Malmö Symphony Orchestra and Malmö Opera Orchestra conducted by Bjarte Engeset. Naxos. $9.99.

Ravel: Orchestral Works, Volume 2—Valses nobles et sentimentales; Gaspard de la nuit (orch. Marius Constant); Le tombeau de Couperin; La Valse. Orchestre National de Lyon conducted by Leonard Slatkin. Naxos. $9.99.

     The Naxos label offers a number of truly wonderful musical series, giving listeners the opportunity to hear and, if they are so inclined, study a composer’s entire output in certain forms. Rossini, for example, is well-known for only a relative handful of his overtures, but the top-notch series of his complete overtures is providing a chance to hear those famous ones and also experience some that are heard rarely, if at all. Actually, listeners interested in the excellent performances by the Prague Sinfonia under Christian Benda have little choice but to hear familiar and unfamiliar works in juxtaposition, since all three releases in this series so far have mixed the often heard with the rarely heard. The overtures to L’Italiana in Algeri and La Cenerentola are concert-hall staples, for example, and Tancredi and La cambiale di matrimonio show up from time to time. The version of Maometto II on this recording, on the other hand, is almost wholly unknown, as is the Grand’ overtura ‘obbligata a contrabbasso,’ an early work that nevertheless shows Rossini firmly in command of melody, harmony and orchestration. As for Matilde de Shabran, ossia Bellezza, e cuor di ferro, even its title is almost never heard (the subtitle translates as “Beauty, and heart of iron”). No matter: all these works are well-made, well-orchestrated, tuneful and attractive in instrumentation, and all are done to a turn by Benda and the Prague players. This ongoing series is a continual delight.

     The final entry in Dmitrij Kitajenko’s Tchaikovsky cycle for Oehms confirms Kitajenko as one of the best Tchaikovsky interpreters today and one of the most sensitive to the changing moods of the symphonies. The huge tone-poem-like first movement of the Fourth is highly dramatic here, and indeed Kitajenko is more concerned with extracting drama from the entire score than in dwelling on its more-lyrical elements – although he certainly does not give those short shrift. There are a few excesses in the performance, a touch too much rubato here and there, but by and large, what Kitajenko does is to give Tchaikovsky his due both in pacing and in orchestration, allowing the music its natural flow and making the symphony both expansive and highly dramatic. Capriccio Italien is nicely done, too, helped by the outstanding playing of the brass of the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln. The tempo excesses are somewhat more intrusive here than in the symphony, but again, most do not detract unduly from the overall flow of the music and the effectiveness of Tchaikovsky’s scoring. This is a notably successful recording whose very fine SACD sound aptly complements Kitajenko’s careful attention to instrumental balance and the overall presentation of works that, despite their familiarity, still seem fresh and new when conducted with this level of care and enthusiasm.

     Back at Naxos, the company’s “Grieg Edition” reaches its seventh volume with a wonderful exploration of Grieg’s forays into overt nationalism through his fascination with the Viking Age and, in particular, the times of Olav Trygvason, who was king from 995 until his death in the year 1000. Bjarte Engeset leads soloists, choruses and orchestras from Malmö with sure-handed, idiomatic elegance in extended scenes from Grieg’s unfinished opera about Trygvason – and also in Landkjenning (“Land-Sighting”), which depicts the moment when Trygvason and his men first sighted the Norwegian coast on their voyage from England. The choruses and incidental music from Sigurd Jorsalfar (“Sigurd the Crusader”) are also suitably martial and triumphal – all this music is overtly nationalistic, and if little of it shows Grieg at his absolute best (because his best work has considerable lyricism, which is in short supply here), all of it displays the ways in which he was capable of skillfully weaving musical tales of importance to him and to Norwegians in general. Grieg was essentially a miniaturist; works on the grand scale did not come particularly naturally to him. But he can certainly handle large orchestral and choral complements when called upon to do so, and his nationalistic works are quite effective as a result. This CD ends with a curiosity that is a world première recording: Resignation by Edmund Neupert (1842-1888), a slight work that Grieg skillfully orchestrated after its composer’s death. In the delicate passages on this CD as well as the martial ones, Engeset shows himself fully attuned to Grieg’s music and highly adept at displaying it as effectively as possible.

     Yet another Naxos series features Leonard Slatkin, not with the Detroit Symphony but with Orchestre National de Lyon (of which Slatkin is also music director), in orchestral works by Ravel. And it is surely because of the French ensemble’s easy, natural way with this music that the recordings are so successful, with no sense of strain by the musicians and with an orchestral sound that seems just right for the music. This CD offers a very interesting contrast between Valses nobles et sentimentales of 1911 and La Valse of 1920, the latter being a work in which Ravel essentially disowned the sensibility that led him to produce the former. The impressionism of the earlier waltz set is nicely contrasted with the post-World-War-I laying to rest of the imperial times in which the waltz flourished – and Slatkin makes the most of the differentiation of the wit and delicacy of the earlier work from the lament and dismissal of the later one. Le tombeau de Couperin (1914-17), a tribute to friends who died in the Great War as well as an evocation of the works of the Baroque composer, also comes across well here, with solid rhythms and a strong sense of looking back much farther into the past than does La Valse. The fourth work on this CD, Marius Constant’s 1990 orchestration of Gaspard de la nuit (1908), is a touch less successful than the other three, largely because the piano version of this music is so splendid and Constant’s handling of it is adequate but not particularly distinguished (in comparison, say, with Ravel’s own way with the orchestration of Mussorgsky’s piano work, Pictures of an Exhibition). This three-movement suite, a tribute to the poetry of Aloysius Bertrand, is filled with pianistic effects that work well enough in the orchestra; but the instrumentation here adds little to the piano original. The Lyon musicians handle the work with aplomb, though, and Slatkin’s conducting is sensitive and well-paced. Like so many other Naxos series, this one bids fair to be a continuing success.

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