November 21, 2013


Vaughan Williams: Symphonies Nos. 5 and 7 (Sinfonia antartica). Sheila Armstrong, soprano; London Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra conducted by Bernard Haitink. LPO. $17.99 (2 CDs).

Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius; Symphony No. 1. Peter Auty, tenor; Michelle Breedt, mezzo-soprano; John Hancock, baritone; Collegium Vocale Gent and Royal Flemish Philharmonic conducted by Edo de Waart. PentaTone. $29.99 (2 SACDs).

John Knowles Paine: Symphony No. 1; Overture to Shakespeare’s “As You Like It”; Shakespeare’s “Tempest”—Symphonic Poem. Ulster Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $9.99.

Schumann: Symphony No. 3 (“Rhenish”); Brahms: Symphony No. 2. Orchestra Sinfonica di Torino della RAI (Schumann) and Philharmonia Orchestra (Brahms) conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini. IDIS. $18.99.

Schumann: Sonatas Nos. 1-3 for Violin and Piano. Christian Tetzlaff, violin; Lars Vogt, piano. Ondine. $16.99.

Schubert: Piano Sonatas Nos. 13, D. 664, and 18, D. 894. Janina Fialkowska, piano. ATMA Classique. $16.99.

Corelli: Chamber Sonatas, Opp. 2 and 4. The Avison Ensemble conducted by Pavlo Beznosiuk. Linn Records. $34.99 (2 SACDs).

     As the heart of holiday gift-giving season fast approaches, classical-music lovers –or people shopping for classical-music lovers – may be wondering what sorts of recordings to consider that are just far enough off the beaten path so they would make worthy additions to existing collections…even ones that already contain pretty much everything in the standard repertoire. One approach is to look for unusually interesting recordings of standard or near-standard works, such as Vaughan William’s Fifth and Seventh Symphonies. The Fifth requires an orchestra able to play for nearly 45 minutes at levels that only rarely rise to forte, and a conductor able to shape the very quiet, frequently hymn-like music in a way that retains forward flow and audience interest. The Seventh, on the other hand, needs a conductor able to accept the work’s film-music-like sound and the use of the orchestra for tone-painting and to support the story of Robert Falcon Scott’s doomed Antarctic expedition. Bernard Haitink proves more than equal to both symphonies’ requirements in a new LPO release of performances he conducted years ago: the Fifth in 1994 and the Seventh in 1984. The grand sound and sensitive playing of the London Philharmonic, and Haitink’s sure hand for pacing and emphasis, make this two-CD set a fine gift for lovers of Vaughan Williams’ symphonic music.

     An important work of another major British composer, The Dream of Gerontius, gets a very fine performance in particularly excellent sound on a two-SACD set from PentaTone. Elgar’s sort-of-oratorio (the composer objected to use of the term) is highly impressive in choral passages and very effective orchestrally as well, and Edo de Waart marshals vocal and instrumental forces to fine effect. The strongly Catholic flavor of the theme – the faithful Gerontius dies and, after several scenes of a journey through a noticeably Catholic afterlife, is gently placed in Purgatory – may not appeal to all listeners and was in fact a barrier for a time to the work’s performance in some quarters. But the music is so well-crafted that this piece is very much worth having even for listeners who do not accept its highly traditional religious message. And it is coupled with a fine rendition of Elgar’s First Symphony, one of the few well-known symphonies in the key of A-flat and a piece that nicely complements The Dream of Gerontius because of the symphony’s mood of benediction, notably in its slow movement.

     An American near-contemporary of Elgar (1857-1934), John Knowles Paine (1839-1906) is far less known and represents a notable discovery – one of many made by the very dedicated JoAnn Falletta, whose fine Naxos recordings with the Buffalo Philharmonic and the Ulster Orchestra regularly explore the works of lesser or simply forgotten composers with intelligence, skill and considerable sensitivity. Falletta’s Paine disc with the Ulster ensemble shows the composer’s very considerable skill at orchestration and his clear absorption of his Germanic training. His works are not particularly innovative – likely the reason they have not remained in the repertoire – but all three of those on this CD are well-crafted and convincing. Paine’s Symphony No. 1 is skillfully designed and well-orchestrated, thematically pleasant and well-constructed. The As You Like It overture is also tuneful and moves gracefully throughout, while the longer Tempest symphonic poem is clearly in the mode of Liszt, featuring six distinct sections played one after the other and skillfully portraying Ariel, Prospero, Ferdinand and Miranda, Caliban and some of the scenes of Shakespeare’s play. One thing that makes this CD a particularly felicitous gift is that the music will almost surely be unfamiliar to the recipient, but the Romantic mode in which it is written will make it easy to listen to and immediately accessible.

     Those seeking a gift of more-traditional symphonic repertoire, but still a recording that the recipient is unlikely to have already, can consider the CD of Schumann’s Third (from a 1961 performance with the Orchestra Sinfonica di Torino della RAI) and Brahms’ Second (from 1962 with the Philharmonia Orchestra) under conductor Carlo Maria Giulini (1914-2005). This recording from IDIS (Istituto Discografico Italiano) is labeled “Carlo Maria Giulini Collection, Vol. 1,” and may encourage a recipient to look forward to further releases. It is also very worthy in its own right. These are familiar works and ones with which Giulini was frequently involved – particularly the Brahms, which he performed innumerable times and frequently recorded. Giulini’s approach to Brahms changed over time, with some of his recordings being highly propulsive while others are staid, slow and unashamedly heavy. This one is on the moderate side, as is the Schumann. There is nothing especially innovative in either interpretation, and neither orchestra is of the first water in these performances, but both readings are intelligent, well-thought-through and frequently exhilarating. They will give a listener the chance to hear a major conductor with whom he or she may not be highly familiar – a fine gift indeed.

     Not all music lovers gravitate to symphonies, of course, and there are some very fine performances of sonatas available this year for those who prefer them. Schumann’s three violin sonatas receive sensitive and elegant readings from Christian Tetzlaff and Lars Vogt on a new Ondine CD. The first sonata did not much please the composer, who said he wrote the second – which is nearly twice as long and altogether broader in scale – because he was dissatisfied with his original attempt. All three sonatas are in minor keys (Nos. 1 and 3 in A minor, No. 2 in D minor), and all three show clear evidence of being composed late in the composer’s life. (The third is actually an expansion of two movements of the F-A-E Sonata, which Schumann co-wrote with Brahms and Albert Dietrich.) There are a number of fine recordings of the three sonatas, but the works are not especially well-known, and many chamber-music lovers may not have a recording – or may have only one and would enjoy an additional view of the music. Tetzlaff and Vogt handle the sonatas with skill and sure inter-instrumental communication, passing the themes and accompaniments easily back and forth and keeping the music’s flow moving smoothly and often elegantly. Lovers of Schumann and of the violin-and-piano repertoire will find this well-recorded disc a lovely gift.

     For single-instrument Romantic-era sonatas, a fine choice for gift-giving would be Janina Fialkowska’s very involved, beautifully phrased performances of Schubert’s Piano Sonatas No. 13, D. 664, and 18, D. 894. The latter, which dates to 1826, was much admired by Schumann, who called it the most perfect of Schubert’s sonatas in both form and conception. It was the last Schubert sonata published during the composer’s brief life, and it remains a remarkable achievement both in scale – 37 minutes in Fialkowska’s performance – and in its mood of serenity, which is rare among Schubert’s sonatas and is nowhere else spun out at this length or with this elegance. The coupling with D. 664 from 1819 is an interesting one, since the earlier sonata, which is in three movements, is the first in which Schubert seems wholly comfortable with Beethoven’s sonata form. The music itself is more straightforward than in the later sonata, with the melodic ease and beauty of which Schubert was always capable but without the underlying complexity of the later work. The Fialkowska CD will be a fine gift for listeners unfamiliar with these Schubert sonatas, with the Canadian pianist, or both.

     And sonatas are not of course confined to the Romantic era, although the word “sonata” did mean somewhat different things in earlier times. There are pleasures galore in a highly engaging two-SACD set of Corelli chamber sonatas by the Avison Ensemble under Pavlo Beznosiuk, who directs while playing the violin. The group’s four other members – Caroline Balding on violin, Richard Tunnicliffe on cello, Paula Chateauneuf on archlute and Roger Hamilton on harpsichord and organ – are thoroughly comfortable with Corelli’s style and with their own places within these finely crafted Baroque pieces. The two sets of sonatas da camera are part of the Avison Ensemble’s project of recording all of Corelli’s chamber music, but this recording stands perfectly well on its own, with every performance poised, balanced, carefully constructed and played with a very high level of artistry. The pacing of the faster movements, and the balance within them, are particularly impressive. These sonatas have been popular among performers since their first publication in 1694, but they are not a “fixture” in many people’s classical-music collections, so this Avison Ensemble set could be a highly welcome gift for many lovers of Baroque music presented in top-notch, historically sensitive performances.

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