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Wagner The Ring of the Nibelungs box set
Title: Wagner The Ring of the Nibelungs box set
Artist: Heidi Melton and Gun-Brit Barkmin (sopranos); Michelle DeYoung (mezzo-soprano), Stuart Skelton and David Cangelosi (tenors), Matthias Goerne (baritone), Shenyang (bass-baritone), Eric Halfvarson (bass), Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, Jaap van Zweden
Label: Naxos
Format: CD14

The big event this year is the release of the completed Ring cycle of operas with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Jaap van Zweden. The Leader of the Gods makes and then breaks a corrupt deal, the consequences of which inexorably bring their world crashing down around them. Forget the popular image of cardboard characters, horned helmets, and dull eventlessness: the real plot of the Ring is staggeringly complex and deeply morally ambivalent. The—mostly—unethical machinations of the characters are set to some of the most breathtakingly expressive and sophisticated music ever written. When watching this vast fable unfurl in the opera house, trying to keep track of who is shafting whom, it is easy to miss much of the musical detail, which is where the CD comes into its own, permitting repeated listening with the synopsis in front of you. Or not—just settling into the river of vocal and orchestral sound can be an overwhelming experience. And there are fourteen hours of it!...

What has come to be known as the “Hong Kong Ring” has received many accolades, from being a Presto Recording of the Year finalist to the BBC Music Magazine Opera Choice, and features some of the brightest talents in the opera world today. Appropriately, the separate operas are also available in blu-ray audio.
Schubert 1828
Title: Schubert 1828
Artist: Alexander Lonquich (piano)
Label: Alpha
Format: CD2

These days many pianists choose to record Schubert on period instruments, to catch the particular sound of his keyboard style. Although Alexander Lonquich was a student of early instrument pioneer Paul Badura-Skoda, for this CD he has chosen to record Schubert’s last three Sonatas on a modern Steinway. It is hard to find superlatives sufficient to describe the music Schubert wrote in the single year of 1828: these three incomparable Piano Sonatas, the Drei Klavierstücke that complete the CD, as well as the C major String Quintet, the Schwanengesang, the E flat major Mass, and other works, all among the greatest music ever written. Tragically, he died in November of that year, aged only 31. The shadow of the recently deceased Beethoven is palpable in these late Sonatas, the C minor in particular having a turbulent character that contrasts with the sublimity of the later two. If anything, the Drei Klavierstücke (Three Piano Pieces—impromptus in all but name) distil Schubert’s already intense expressivity still further, resulting in a music of profound maturity. If you have somehow missed these works, Lonquich’s new release will provide a perfect introduction, and even if you do already know them, his carefully considered, brooding, performances will be a pleasure to explore.
Dussek Concertos for two piano and Chamber works
Title: Dussek Concertos for two piano and Chamber works
Artist: Alexei Lubimov, Olga Pashchenko, Finnish Baroque Orchestra
Label: Alpha
Format: CD

A slightly younger contemporary of Mozart, Dussek was one of the composers who seized the possibilities of the established Classical Style and bent it to his imaginative will. His music is often described as “trailblazing early romantic”, not least because of his innovative use of rhetorical contrasts, and his championing of extended piano range—the influence on Beethoven is clear. On this new CD early instrument specialist Alexei Lubimov, ably assisted by Olga Paschenko, give us an insight into how Dussek’s music might have sounded for his first audiences, so that we can judge for ourselves just how radical it must have seemed. Lubimov has chosen a Concerto for two Fortepianos and orchestra, and a chamber work, the Piano Quartet, to illustrate this expressive revolution. If you are interested in the origins of Beethoven’s dramatic style, Dussek is a very good place to start.
JS Bach The Brandeburg Concertos
Title: JS Bach The Brandeburg Concertos
Artist: Zefiro, Alfredo Bernardini
Label: Arcana
Format: CD2

When I grew up performances of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos tended to be ponderous and venerable, with full orchestra of modern instruments. Nowadays the default performance style for music of Bach’s era is small groups of original instruments, with as much concern as possible for correct performance practice. Players today have come to recognise the Italianate quality of Bach’s concertos, not least the Brandenburgs, and Italian group Zefiro’s new recordings imbue the iconic music with a zestful energy and exuberance, tempered by a soulful expressiveness in the slower sections. From the exhilarating tempi to the stratospheric trumpet playing, I don’t think I have ever heard the Brandenburgs sound so freshly-minted and life-affirming. I imagine that almost everybody already has a favourite performance of these works; even so, Zefiro’s version will offer stiff competition, and possibly even change your perception of Bach.
Berlioz Grande Messe des Morts, Op 5
Title: Berlioz Grande Messe des Morts, Op 5
Artist: Bror Magnus Todenes (tenor), Collegium Musicum Kor, Bergen Philharmonic Choir, Edvard Grieg Kor, Royal Northern College of Music Choir, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Eikanger-Bjorsvik Musikklag (brass band), Musicians from the Bergen Philharmonic Youth Orchestra
Label: Chandos
Format: SACD

The nineteenth century produced two great Requiems, the well-known one of Verdi, and the still underrated  Grande Messe des morts of Berlioz. The Verdi work, perhaps because of its operatic approach, has been almost overexposed, to the point of being used in many TV ads. Berlioz, by contrast, although also an opera composer, chooses to present an austere, visionary, sometimes terrifying realisation of the liturgical text. Berlioz’ imagination extends beyond just the expressivity of the word-setting, he uses his orchestra and voices in adventurous ways, even placing a brass band at each corner of the concert hall at moments of peak intensity. But do not expect a shout-fest; Berlioz uses his forces delicately for the most part, and the intense whisper of his choruses is very moving. Of course, the composer of the gigantic Te Deum can be relied upon to impress when he does venture a climax, and his seismic use of the timpani is truly hair-raising. The sheer size of the orchestra and choir required is reflected in the list of performers on this new hybrid SACD release: Choir of Collegium Musicum, the Bergen Philharmonic Choir, the Edvard Grieg Choir, the Royal Northern College of Music Choir, the Eikanger-Bjørsvik Brass Band, Musicians from the Bergen Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, all conducted by Edward Gardner.

The 5-channel SACD medium might as well have been invented for the vastness of the Berlioz Requiem. If you have surround-sound this SACD would seem indispensible!
Ravel and Duparc - Aimer et mourir (Danses et melodies)
Title: Ravel and Duparc - Aimer et mourir (Danses et melodies)
Artist: Robin Ticciati, Magdalena Kozena, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin
Label: Linn
Format: CD

Following on from Robin Ticciati and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin’s recent Debussy/Fauré release, this disc features an outstanding pairing: the rich mezzo of Magdalena Kožená and five chansons by Henri Duparc. There are few greater song composers than Duparc, and Ms Kožená sings four outstanding examples, perhaps the standouts from his entire output of only seventeen. Although they are usually heard in their original format of voice and piano, Duparc himself orchestrated these four, giving them an extra degree of subtlety. L’Invitation au Voyage, in particular, is about as good as art song gets. The question must have arisen in production meetings as to what you can pair these pinnacle works with? What can compete? The solution, marvellously, is Ravel’s orchestral music: the Suite No. 2 from Daphnis and Chloé and the Valses Nobles et Sentimentales (Ravel’s salute to that other great songsmith, Schubert). Completing the CD is one of Duparc’s bare handful of orchestral works, Aux étoiles (To the stars!), an infrequently heard gem. A more attractive program would be hard to imagine—it is no surprise that the CD is a finalist among the Presto Recordings of the Year.
Berlioz Odyssey
Title: Berlioz Odyssey
Artist: Sir Colin Davis
Label: LSO Live
Format: SACD6 + CD10

For many of us, the name of Berlioz is synonymous with Sir Colin Davis—he was among the first to guide us through this amazing repertoire, producing along the way definitive recordings that had never been entirely superseded. Until now, that is. Sir Colin has in recent years returned to his core repertoire and re-recorded the major works of Berlioz in concert. Garnering critical paeans when first released, the LSO Live label has now collected these outstanding versions of Berlioz in a reasonably-priced box, variously in CD and hybrid SACD formats. Included are the complete operas les Troyens, Benvenuto Cellini, and Béatrice et Bénédict, the Symphony Fantastique, Harold in Italy, Roméo et Juliette, la Damnation de Faust, l’Enfance du Christ, and the huge Grand Messe des morts and even bigger Te Deum. These were his swansong releases—Sir Colin sadly died in 2013—and the culmination of his lifelong collaboration with the London Symphony Orchestra. There have been few other such long and productive associations.

Sir Colin Davis’ other focus has always been Sibelius, and LSO LIVE have also released a hybrid SACD live cycle of Sibelius Symphonies on LSO0675. Recommended!
Goossens The Apocalypse
Title: Goossens The Apocalypse
Artist: Grant Dickson, Gregory Yurisich, Ronald Dowd, Narelle Tapping, Lauris Elms, Raymond McDonald, The Sydney Philharmonia Choir, Peter Seymour, The Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Donald Hazelwood, Myer Fredman (conductor)a
Label: Lyrita
Format: CD

Now this is interesting, as they say. After the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s ground-breaking recordings of Goossens’ smaller works on Chandos it is pleasing to finally engage with a major work of his. Sir Eugene Goossens was, in the forties and fifties, a major figure in music around Sydney, being chief conductor of the Sydney Symphony, director of the Sydney Conservatorium, and advocate for Bennelong Point as the site for the Opera House. Here in Australia he is also remembered for the sadder tale of his expulsion in disgrace. Suffice to say that it revolved around his interest in the occult, an interest that his oratorio the Apocalypse would seem to reflect. It is a huge work, nearly eighty minutes, and although it belongs firmly in the British choral tradition—sitting stylistically somewhere between Belshazzar’s Feast and Salomé—it is also a fascinating time-capsule of the kind of music-making that went on in Sydney in the sixties. You will gather that extravagance rather than piety is on the menu. Lyrita are a label dedicated to British music of the 20th century, and it is characteristic of their approach to have unearthed the recording of this neglected work. The energetic performance, recorded live in Sydney in 1984, features local soloists including the great Lauris Elms, with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra conducted by Myer Fredman.
Schmelzer The Emperor's Fiddler
Title: Schmelzer The Emperor's Fiddler
Artist: David Irving (violin), Hannah Lane (triple harp), Tommie Andersson (theorbo), John O'Donnell (harpsichord and organ), Laura Vaughan (viola da gamba and lirone)
Label: Obsidian
Format: CD

A treat for Baroque fanciers, this CD of music by the seventeenth century violin-composer Johannes Schmelzer features an all-Australian line-up of players. The six featured works are from his Sonatae unarum fidium seu a violino solo of 1664, one of the few German collections of violin sonatas in a field otherwise dominated by Italians; it is thought that Biber, author of the more famous Rosary Sonatas, was Schmelzer’s student. The music is by turns rarified and earthy, with the virtuoso solo violin accompanied by a richly varied continuo of theorbo (a large lute), harpsichord, viola da gamba, and, pleasingly, a baroque harp. This lavish ensemble provides a musical texture that is always attractive, and endlessly fascinating, reminding us that seventeenth century music is every bit as appealing as eighteenth.
Trip To Russia (Tchaikovsky, Glasunov, Rimsky-Korsakov)
Title: Trip To Russia (Tchaikovsky, Glasunov, Rimsky-Korsakov)
Artist: Daniel Muller-Schott (Violoncello), Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Aziz Shokhakimov
Label: Orfeo
Format: CD

Cellist Daniel Müller-Schott takes us on a journey through the music of Tchaikovsky, Glazunov, and Rimsky-Korsakov. Not the well-known, opulent romantic symphonic works, but the poised, elegant, cello and ensemble music by those composers, some familiar, some not. Most likely to be known to listeners is Tchaikovsky’s exquisite Variations on a Rococo Theme, which sets the tone for the other works, which include Glazunov’s achingly sad Chant du Ménestrel, and Rimsky’s suave Serenade. Müller-Schott’s affection for this music is evident in his playing, and the composers’ own orchestrations provide a pleasing Russian warmth. Late-night listening at its very best.
Debussy Preludes
Title: Debussy Preludes
Artist: Vladimir Ashkenazy
Label: Paladino
Format: CD

As something of a career rite of passage for pianists, it comes as a surprise that Vladimir Ashkenazy has not recorded Debussy’s set of 24 Preludes before. In a sense, he had begun: the recording of the Second Book of Preludes released on this Paladino CD dates from 1971, a live concert in New York that has inexplicably never seen the light of day on disc. Forty-six years later Ashkenazy completed the project by recording Book One in the Tonzauber Studio in Vienna. Although they were published as a set, there is little evidence that Debussy thought of his Preludes as a cycle, validating Ashkenazy’s rather poignant decision to issue recordings that bookend his career. Released in the centenary year of Debussy’s death, the CD celebrates both composer and pianist.
Mozart and Myslivecek Flute Concertos
Title: Mozart and Myslivecek Flute Concertos
Artist: Ana de la Vega (flute), English Chamber Orchestra
Label: Pentatone
Format: SACD

Although not as well-known as his Concertos for Violin or Piano, Mozart’s two Flute Concertos are the embodiment of the clarity and melodiousness that characterise his music. Australian flute player Ana De La Vega performs these works with an expressive limpidity and flourish, and her ensemble, the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Stephanie Gonley, match her approach faultlessly. Continuing this delightful disc is the much less familiar Myslivecek Flute Concerto that Ana De La Vega has revived after the rediscovery of the score in 1943. Cut from the same cloth as the Mozart, this is a welcome addition to what is, in all honesty, a rather small canon, and Ms De La Vega plays it with the appropriate panache and commitment. Being a Pentatone release, the issue is of a hybrid SACD recording and the sound quality is impeccable.
Chris’s Picks
Fevin Missa Ave Maria, Missa Salve sancta parens
Title: Fevin Missa Ave Maria, Missa Salve sancta parens
Artist: The Brabant Ensemble, Stephen Rice (conductor)
Label: Hyperion
Format: CD

I came upon the music of Antoine de Fevin many years ago, and was so impressed that I have chased down every appearance of his work ever since—pretty thin pickings, on the whole, a motet here and there, and a lovely Missa pro Defunctis …only to find it also attributed to Divitis. But at long last the Brabant Ensemble have made an entire CD of his music, and for that we can only be deeply thankful, because Fevin is one of the greatest of the contemporaries of Josquin, a composer of distinctive and memorable music who needed to be brought in from the margins. If you are an admirer of the music that was written between about 1480 and 1520—Obrecht, de la Rue, Brumel, Agricola, Mouton, and Isaac, are roughly contemporary—you will love this release. If you have not encountered this repertoire yet, why not start here? The Brabant Ensemble have issued disc after disc of outstanding, and often astounding, neglected repertoire from the early to middle sixteenth century, and this splendid disc continues their stylistic trajectory.
Chamber Music From The Brossard Collection
Title: Chamber Music From The Brossard Collection
Artist: The Bach Players
Label: Coviello
Format: CD

The subject of this collection of late seventeenth century sonatas is Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, one of the few women composers known to us from the Baroque epoch. Her career started very early and was encouraged by no lesser a figure than Louis XIV; as well as the chamber music recorded here, she wrote a number of appealing solo voice cantatas, and six powerful harpsichord Suites, all of which are beginning to appear on disc. Unsurprisingly, it is thought that much of the music on this new Coviello CD has never been recorded before—we are likely the first audience to hear this repertoire in over three hundred years. All of which would be of merely scholarly interest were not the music so remarkably, dignifiedly, beautiful. It is clear that Jacquet de la Guerre’s fame was truly well-founded.
Schreker The Birthday of the Infanta - Suite
Schreker Orchestral Works
Title: Schreker The Birthday of the Infanta - Suite
Artist: Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, JoAnn Falletta
Label: Naxos
Format: CD

Title: Schreker Orchestral Works
Artist: Valda Wilson (soprano), Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz, Christopher Ward (conductor)
Label: Capriccio
Format: CD

There is little music quite as grandly opulent as Schreker’s opera die Gezeichneten. Schreker himself was clearly very pleased with the opera’s Prelude because he extended it to make the concert work Vorspiel zu einem Drama (Prelude to a Drama) which opens this new CD of his music from the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by JoAnne Falletta. Also on the disc are his earlier Der Geburtstag der Infantin, a ballet suite drawn from the tale by Oscar Wilde that also forms the basis for Schreker’s friend Zemlinsky’s disturbing opera der Zwerg, and the Romantic Suite, unusually for Schreker not a stage work. Schreker’s music is always utterly distinctive; he has one of the most immediately recognisable musical languages of any twentieth century composer. His music is also heart-warming and profound; the continuing neglect of his work is hard to fathom, but this new Naxos release is gratifyingly affordable and well worth the investment.

As it happens, Schreker fares well this month: there is also a release of his orchestral music on the Capriccio label, C5348, featuring Vom ewigen Leben, the Fantastic Overture, Ekkehard, and other works. Perhaps he is beginning to be noticed, after all.


Editorial

Every month several hundred new CDs are released, on innumerable labels. Some of these feature extremely familiar repertoire, some are releases of works more talked about than heard, and some are just plain adventurous. This month we see, representing the familiar, a wonderfully reimagined set of Brandenburg Concertos by the Italian group Zefiro; and Schubert’s late, great piano works from 1828, the last three Sonatas and the towering Drei Klavierstücke, D946, played on a modern Steinway by Alexander Lonquich.

Among the slightly less familiar are a new recording of Berlioz’ grandiose Grande Messe des Morts, also known as his Requiem, with what seems like half of Norway performing, conducted by Edward Gardner; and an exciting CD of Dussek’s late-classical Concerto for Two Pianos featuring period instruments, played by specialists Alex Lubimov and Olga Pashchenko.

And then there are the adventurous releases. It is sad to have to admit that a CD including orchestral songs by Duparc, sung by the marvellous Magdalena Kožená falls into this category, coupled as it is with orchestral showpieces by Ravel, and I hope people will fall for this lovely music. Nudging into the definitely unfamiliar are two CDs of orchestral music by Franz Schreker, whose sumptuous operas include the ultra-romantic die Gezeichneten (the Stigmatised), and whose reputation once equalled that of Richard Strauss; and a recording by the Brabant Ensemble of masses by Josquin-contemporary Antoine de Fevin—as it happens my favourite release of this batch.
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Written and compiled by Chris Dench

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