May 01, 2008


D’Indy: Orchestral Works, Volume 1—Jour d’été à la montagne; La Forêt enchantée; Souvenirs. Iceland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Rumon Gamba. Chandos. $18.99.

Grainger: Transcriptions for Wind Orchestra. Royal Northern College of Music Wind Orchestra conducted by Clark Randell. Chandos. $18.99.

Schubert: Mass No. 6 in E-flat Major, D. 950. Soloists and Collegium Musicum 90 conducted by Richard Hickox. Chandos. $18.99.

      The independent label Chandos, which is now being distributed by Naxos, has an enviable longstanding reputation for exploring less-familiar classical repertoire with very high-quality performances, presented in outstanding sound. These three new releases show why Chandos fully deserves the esteem in which it is held. The music is less-known, if not necessarily unknown; all performances are top-notch; there are some premiere recordings among the works; the sound is uniformly excellent, with greater warmth and presence than is to be found on many CDs; and even the enclosed booklets are far more detailed than is common in CD releases, containing extensive background information, guides to the music and full texts of vocal works – much as the best enclosures did when vinyl records were the dominant form of recorded music.

      The CD of Vincent d’Indy’s music shows the composer both in his maturity and in his youthful phase, when he was much influenced by Wagner. La Forêt enchantée, the earliest work, was first performed in 1878, two years after d’Indy attended the premiere of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen in Bayreuth. It is an atmospheric piece about knights lost in a forest and waylaid by elves, containing such Wagnerian attributes as a solo horn, effectively eerie harp harmonics, unexpected key changes and a final section that seems to stretch into eternity. Jour d’été à la montagne is a much later work (1905) whose tone painting of a summer day in the Ardèches Mountains anticipates Richard Strauss’ Alpensinfonie (1911-1915). D’Indy’s work opens and closes at night and includes sunrise, folk dancing, birdsong, rustic themes and clouding weather (although no storm). It is atmospheric and effectively orchestrated. Souvenirs is of the same vintage but much more personal: d’Indy wrote it when he returned from a conducting tour of the United States to find his beloved wife, Isabelle – who was also his cousin – dying of a cerebral hemorrhage. With a leitmotif representing Isabelle usually heard on English horn, the mainly somber work also includes lively sections representing happy memories, and eventually achieves calm and serenity, perhaps because of d’Indy’s unshakable Catholic faith. The Iceland Symphony shows itself a well-rounded, well-balanced orchestra on this CD, and Rumon Gamba’s nuanced direction is highly attentive to detail.

      The Percy Grainger CD, which includes a number of premiere recordings, consists mainly of transcriptions from a collection that Grainger called Chosen Gems for Winds. Works from as far back as the 13th century are presented, with some pieces from well-known composers (J.S. Bach) and others from less-known ones (John Jenkins). Among the short works, a march from Clavierbüchlein II for Anna Magdalena Bach – probably composed by C.P.E. Bach – is a highlight. There are also two brief 20th-century works here: the first of Eugene Goossens’ Two Ballades and Katherine Parker’s Down Longford Way. The short transcriptions are uniformly interesting, but the real highlights of the CD are its two longest works. One is Liszt’s Hungarian Fantasy, featuring pianist Ivan Hovorun – a tour de force with an unusual sound and emphasis on the piano’s higher ranges. The other is Franck’s Chorale No. 2, an expansive work whose origin as a piece for organ is accentuated by Grainger’s clever transcription. The Royal Northern College of Music Wind Orchestra under Clark Randell plays all these works with understanding and a sure sense of style.

      Schubert’s Mass No. 6 does not qualify as an unknown work – Naxos itself recently released a fine recording of it – but the version by Richard Hickox and Collegium Musicum 90 is something special. This is an original-instruments orchestra, with every musician playing an old instrument or a carefully crafted replica based on a specific model. This is also a small orchestra – eight first violins, seven seconds, four violas, three cellos and so on – and its performance of Schubert’s final mass therefore has unusual clarity in the vocal lines, which do not need to overcome large forces to be heard. The soloists are all excellent and all knowledgeable in period style: soprano Susan Gritton, mezzo-soprano Pamela Helen Stephen, tenors Mark Padmore and James Gilchrist, and bass Matthew Rose. And the instrumental balance – among the instruments themselves, not just between instruments and vocalists – is careful and convincing, as is especially clear in sections featuring trombones, whose inclusion lends gravitas to the work. Hickox also has a fine sense of the lyrical beauty of the Et incarnatus est and the drama of the Sanctus Dominus. The result is a first-class performance that confirms, as do all three of these new CDs, that Chandos is a high-quality company committed to the elegant presentation of the music it records.

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