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Perhaps no great composer arouses such intense enthusiasm and antipathy as Richard Wagner. The great obstacle to approaching his work is the massive size of his operas which tend to frighten new listeners. For decades we have had recordings of 'Wagner Without Words' but all too often they have been sugary and insubstantial concoctions. Suddenly we have a trio of excellent recordings from which to chose. Wagner's early triumphs came in Dresden and it is therefore fitting that the Scottish conductor, Donald Runnicles, uses the Staatskapelle Dresden for TELDEC'S selection, Der Ring Der Nibelungen Orchestral Highlights (0630-17109-2). It has all the mastery one expects from this orchestra, with the added excitement of a live performance, especially moving in the rousing 'Ride of the Valkyries.' As always Teldec's acoustics are unsurpassable. The real gem of this disc, however, is the 'Siegfried Idyll' which recreates the intimate elegance of this birthday present to the composer's wife.

The 'New Queen's Hall Orchestra' is to be praised for using period instruments from the late Victorian era when Sir Henry Wood used the original orchestra to begin his famous Promenade concerts. In CARLTON'S Wagner Overtures and Preludes (30366 00982) Barry Wordsworth has given us an inspiring selection of three overtures and three preludes. The Rienzi Overture is particularly memorable and shows Wagner in a different mood from his later works. Happily there is no competition between the Wordsworth and the Runnicles' discs as each conductor has chosen different works. While in a Wagnerian mood, it is worth mentioning another work from CARLTON. As part of its 'Carlton Classics' collection of music by the London Symphony Orchestra, there is a set which combines some basic Wagner including overtures such as Rienzi and Tannhauser and the Ride of Valkyries, with a stirring recording of Berlioz's 'Symphonie Fantastique.' On this reissued coupling of older recordings the LSO is conducted by Barry Tuckwell for the Wagner and by Richard Williams for the Berlioz.

The re-issues in the CARLTON CLASSICS series, combined with their new sets should have a particular appeal to those forming collections or looking for good recordings at moderate prices to introduce younger people to good music. One of the most notable is a two-disc collection, Johann Strauss: A Viennese Collection (30368 01127). One's only complaint is with the inaccurate title for we are given far more than just Johann the Younger. We have a stunning assemblage of the most famous waltzes, polkas and overtures of the three Strauss brothers (although none of their father) as well as two works by their rival, Carl Ziehrer. All are conducted by John Georgiadis, the best Strauss conductor in Britain. Almost alone among British conductors he knows the crucial Viennese trick of emphasising the second beat. Some of these performances are familiar from his earlier disc, 'An Evening of Strauss', but there is an added bonus in this sparkling selection, the 'Bluthenkranz Waltz' where Eduard Strauss arranged his eldest brother's most famous melodies into one single and stunning tribute.

Among other notable re-issues by CARLTON CLASSICS on their mid-price two-disc sets is an elegant performance of Handel's Messiah (30366 00887) in which Mark Brown conducts the Gloria Della Musica of Prague and the Brensky Akademicky Sbor. The four soloists, however, are all native English speakers. The tenor, James Griffett, is particularly outstanding in recitatives such as 'Comfort ye my people'. The use of period instruments and the controlled delicacy of the conducting make this one of the best sets available for those who prefer the authentic sound of Handel to the overwhelming Victorian choral tradition.

HYPERION have recently brought out three compact discs of eighteenth century music, the first two of which represent two large portions of Handel's musical legacy. The first of these is a two-disc set of his Alexander Balus (CDA 67241/2). Because this three-act oratorio is not one of Handel's most famous works it has been difficult to hear it and it is wonderful to have it available once again. Alexander Balus was composed in the summer of 1747 but was not performed until the following year and it had only two other performances during Handel's lifetime. The story is taken from the Old Testament's 'Book of Maccabees' and is something of a continuation of his earlier oratorio, Judas Maccabaeus. The score, highly romanticised by the librettist, Thomas Morell, is filled with drama and high passion as Jews, Syrians and Egyptians fight it out over land and women, the most famous of whom is Cleopatra.

In this recording The King's Consort is directed by Robert King and the chorus is made up of the choir of The King's Consort and the Choir of New College, Oxford. Alexander Balus, King of Syria, is sung by Catherine Denley: Ptolomee, King of Egypt, by Michael George; Jonathan, Chief of the Jews by Charles Daniels; Cleopatra, Lynne Dawson and Aspasia, her confidante, Claron McFadden. The music contains some of Handel's finest arias and orchestrations. On this recording The King's Consort is to be congratulated especially for the timpani's playing. Lynne Dawson brings a powerful delicacy to her Cleopatra. This recording follows Handel's 1748 version and adds the accompagnato, 'Ye Happy People' and the wedding chorus, 'Triumph Hymen' which Handel included in his 1754 revival.

The second Handel offering from HYPERION is another two-disc set, The Organ Concertos (CDA 67291/2). Handel devised the idea of an 'organ-concerto' as one of a variety of concertos which filled up the time between the acts of an oratorio and gave variety to the evening's entertainment. The eighteenth-century English organ was decidedly different from its European cousins and for this recording the organist, Paul Nicholson, went to St Lawrence's Church, Whitchurch, London whose organ dates from Handel's time. Of the twelve concertos here, the first six were published in 1738 and the last six, in 1761, two years after Handel's death. The Orchestra is The Brandenburg Consort directed from the harpsichord by Roy Goodman. In this recording all the sparkle and sheer excitement of Handel's musical genius are fully captured through the deft playing of Mr. Nicholson and the easy rapport with the Brandenburg Consort.

The third release of eighteenth century music is a compilation from other HYPERION recordings: La Folia: Variations on a Theme (CDA 67035). The Folia was a somewhat frantic Portuguese dance, or musical form in three-time, which dates from the late fifteenth century. Lully was the first to use the form in 1672 but it was Corelli who really popularised it in his Sonata in D Minor. In this recording we have, in addition to Corelli's Sonata, works by Marais, Scarlatti, Vivaldi, C. P. E. Bach and Geminiani which all make use of the Portuguese dance. In this vivacious recording the Purcell Quartet is joined by the Purcell Band.

CARLTON CLASSICS have coupled together in their 'LSO Doubles' series a wealth of new releases. First we have two symphonic expressions of nationalism in music: Dvorak's Symphony No 9 - 'The New World' and Sibelius's Symphony No 2 (30368 001177). Here again we have the spirited playing of the LSO. The Dvorak is conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras and the Sibelius, by Barry Tuckwell. The Mackerras rendition of the famous Largo in the Dvorak Symphony is deeply moving in its sustained emotion. A far more exuberant emotion is rightly conveyed in a second 'LSO Doubles' when Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2 is coupled with his Second Symphony and, as an added treat, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (30368 01117) is added. A perfect balance is evident in this recording between David Golub as pianist with the LSO under Wyn Morris. The second Symphony enjoys the unrivalled conducting of Gennadi Rozdestvensky, whose passionate interpretation is felt particularly in the Adagio movement. One is conscious of the enduring Russian tradition throughout this recording because Rozdestvensky emphasises the Tchaikovsky resonances throughout the symphony and unites this with his memories of the troubled history of Russia that he knows all too well. A final and highly recommended 'LSO Double' re-issue is one of French music by Debussy, Ravel, Bizet, and Saint-Saens (30368 01187). It is particularly appropriate to have Barry Wordsworth, an experienced balletic conductor, in the 'Prelude a l'apres-Midi d'un Faune,' a work famous in the history of ballet. Here the solo flute playing is commendable. Saint-Saens's 'Carnival of the Animals' brings all the creatures alive from the lumbering elephant to the ethereal swan.

TELDEC'S new two CD set of three Mendelssohn Symphonies is particularly welcome not only because of the inspired conducting of Kurt Masur with the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig, but because the producers have made a wise choice of symphonies (3984-21341-2). Many collectors will already have recordings of the third ('Scottish') and the fourth ('Italian') Symphonies, so this collection sensibly consists of three other symphonies: the First, Second and Fifth. It would be difficult to find more sprightly playing than in the First Symphony and, indeed, this recording surpasses the much admired Abbado recording of the First and the Maazel of the Fifth. One senses that Masur's own experiences in the final struggle against East German tyranny break forth in his splendid rendition of the final movement of the Fifth with Luther's mighty hymn, 'Eine feste Burg ist unser Gott'. The addition of the Second Symphony, a virtually unknown work from 1840, makes this an attractive set. There is only one flaw however: the Second Symphony or 'Lobgesang' is a celebration of the fourth centenary of printing, but this CD contains no text to help us appreciate the marvellous singing of such a well matched trio as Barbara Bonney, Edith Wiens, and Peter Schreir. Surely when celebrating printing we should be given printed words.

HYPERION has done more than almost any other company to promote either British music or British musicians. Their two CD set of Brahms: The Complete Trios for Piano, Clarinet, and Horn (CDA 67251/2) provides sustained performances of the five Brahms Piano trios by the Florestan Trio. Susan Tomes' piano playing is commendable throughout and she is especially skilled in adapting to the swiftly changing moods of such a temperamental composer as Brahms. This is certainly more than a worthy successor to the now rather aged Julius Katchen recording. The sound quality here is superb and nowhere more important than in the joyous finale to the 'Trio for piano, violin and horn' where Stephen Stirling's spirited rendition gives one all the thrill of the hunt. Susan Tomes is also the pianist with Anthony Marwood, the violinist of the Florestan Trio, in another HYPERION recording, Dvorak's Music for Violin and Piano (CDA 66934). Especially noteworthy are the sensitive and well matched performances of the 'Sonata in F Major,' 'The Sonatina in G Major' and the short but haunting 'Ballad in D Minor' written for an English magazine at Christmas, 1884. The delicacy of Miss Tomes's playing is well paired by Marwood's soulful violin technique. The skilful blending of these two virtuosi is nowhere more apparent than in the opening movement of the 'Four Romantic Pieces,' the highlight of this serene recording.

We saw many other notable recordings of Brahms during 1997 which was appropriate as it was the centenary of his death. In a new release from OLYMPIA David Campbell, the distinguished British clarinettist, joins the Bingham String Quartet for a tranquil performance of Brahms' Quintet for Clarinet and Strings in B Minor coupled here with Mozart's beloved Quintet for Clarinet and Strings in A Major K 581 (OCD 637). The Mozart is played with a relaxed delicacy: the larghetto movement taking almost one minute longer than many other recordings. The American satirist, Ambrose Bierce, once defined the clarinet as 'an instrument of torture operated by a person with cotton in his ears,' but this recording proves the opposite. With such a virtuoso as David Campbell the instrument becomes one of unbridled delight.

ERATO brings us an entirely different Brahms's mood in a performance recorded live in Berlin of his Piano Concerto No 1 Op 15 (3984-21633-2). Here we have the imaginative and magical combination of the veteran German conductor, Kurt Sanderling with the young French pianist, Helene Grimaud. From the majestic sound of the opening movement we know we are listening to a major orchestra, the Staatskapelle of Berlin, while the presence of the audience lifts Mile Grimaud to new heights of intensity in this work especially noticeable in the Adagio. We can only hope that the same forces will soon attempt a recording of Brahms' Second Concerto. Incidentally this recording has an unusual feature, a track which lasts 52 seconds and is made up of well deserved applause at the end of the exuberant performance.

The future of orchestral music in this country seems bright when one listens to two CDs from CARLTON performed by The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. Christopher Seaman conducts them in a rousing performance of Richard Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra coupled with his much less played, Symphonia Domestica (30366 00932). The young performers provide a fulsome opening to the Zarathustra: this is Strauss for the Stereo, but there is also later much delicate playing as well as the subtle interplays of themes in the Symphonia Domestica. The same conductor and orchestra provide a generous recording of England's greatest composer in another CARLTON disc, with Elgar: Introduction and Allegro for Strings and Enigma Variations (30366 00922). Since this recording also contains Falstaff it is just one second short of 80 minutes, perhaps a record? This is a perfect disc with which to introduce someone to Elgar and while it may not reach the heights of Adrian Boult's unsurpassable interpretation of the Enigma Variations, it is a deeply felt and moving account of that portrait of friendship.

There is an increasing vogue for complete sets of piano music. The most impressive one in recent months comes from TELDEC and is Rudolf Buchbinder's recording of Joseph Haydn's Complete Piano Sonatas (063017358-2). This ten-disc set contains some fifty of 'Papa' Haydn's Sonatas. (The fragments of Sonatas 21 to 28 are wisely excluded from this collection.) The sound, as always with Teldec, is flawless. Buchbinder's mastery of technique, combined with a lightness of touch, is crucial to convey the crystal beauty of Haydn's scores. One senses here the debt that Haydn's piano music - for the pianoforte was a new instrument - owed to the harpsichord, seen especially in sonatas like Nos. 46 and 50. The very form of the piano sonata was established by Haydn just as he had done with the symphony. One hopes that this ambitious undertaking will bring Haydn's Piano sonatas the popularity that they deserve. The only lack in this otherwise splendid set is the complete absence of any notes and thus the listener is not alerted to the change evident in Sonata 33 and some of its successors.

OLYMPIA have completed their impressive series of Sibelius' Complete Piano Music with Volume Four (OCD 634) and Volume Five (OCD 635). Many of these will be unfamiliar works to most listeners. Here we have virtuoso playing by the South African-born pianist, Annette Servadei, of such gems as the Six Bagatelles or the lyrical Three Pieces. Such varied works require piano technique of the highest character and Miss Servadei gives this in full measure. The last disc ends with a true delight: Finlandia. This work is so often trivialised by use in advertisements and cheap compilations and, it is refreshing to hear the splendid melodies ring out in such bracing Nordic tones on the solo piano.

The seventeenth century in Europe is represented by two releases from TELDEC and CARLTON. From Teldec we have Monteverdi's final collection of madrigals - the Madrigali Guerrieri et Amorosi of 1638. This disc contains II Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, Ogni Amante E Guerrier, Mentre Vaga Angioletta and the Lamento Della Ninfa Madrigali (4509-92181-2). The Concentus Musicus Wien is conducted by Nicholas Harnoncourt and, as always, uses original instruments. Monteverdi's eighth book of madrigals is his last contribution to this genre and in this recording the greater emphasis on dramatic presentation is obvious through the general intensity of singing. The Lamento Della Ninfa is particularly moving with the composer's insistence that the soloist sings 'a tempo del'affetto del animo' and not as the conductor directs. From CARLTON we have a delightful disc of works from the Marcello brothers. From Benedetto we have his Sonatas for Cello and Basso Continuo and from Alessandro, his Concerto for Oboe (30366-00732). The Sonatas, number one to six, provide pleasant listening in the standard sonata form combined with some strenuous demands on the performers. The Concerto was originally written as an oboe concerto and then arranged for the organ by Bach and it is in this format that we hear it here. The works are performed by the two Moscow musicians, Alexander Zagorinsky on the cello and Alexei Shmitov on the organ.

We have often mentioned one of the great recording projects of all time: HYPERION'S recordings of Leslie Howard's playing of Liszt's complete music for solo piano. This has now reached volume 48 with Liszt's Complete Paganini Etudes. This series is now just beyond the half-way mark and it is a credit to Hyperion to support such an extensive work. Liszt, unlike many subsequent musicians, rated Paganini's abilities as a composer very highly. Leslie Howard is now unrivalled in his interpretations of Liszt and here his spirited and sensitive playing takes us to the heart of the Romantic movement by combining two of key virtuosi and icons, Liszt and Paganini. It is particularly delightful to hear his sure touch as he dances down the keys in the famous 'La Capanella.' As always, he provides scholarly notes on his selections.

Finally we have a sparkling finish with a continental tour in HYPERION'S European Light Music Classics (CDA 66998). As in the earlier two 'British Light Music Classics,' the tuneful selections are played by the New London Orchestra under Ronald Corp. The choice is remarkable for its breadth, with almost every continental country represented. Some of the selections are well known from the sprightly 'Skater's Waltz' by Waldteufel to the elegiac 'Gold and Silver' of Lehar. This delightful recording has the added feature of showing how composers influenced one another: here we have the forgotten North German composer, Oscar Fetras, who imitated Johann Strauss's appearance and style. So, rather than the familiar Blue Danube we sail along a different river with 'Moonlight on the Alster.' This is a CD to delight the weary listener. Anyone who owns it will be playing it frequently and joyously.
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Author:Paterson, Anthony
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:May 1, 1998
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