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Two high-profile releases from BIS, first, both of which found favour with Rob Cowan. In their latest Sibelius release for the Swedish label, Osmo Vänskä and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra turn their sights on the Lemminkäinen Legends and early tone poem The Wood-Nymph (1894-95) – the latter, according to Rob, “colossal music redolent of Wagner and, especially at the end, Bruckner, with hints at En Saga and, more unexpectedly, Tapiola in between. Vänskä drives a taut, powerful performance that will burn the music into the same part of your brain where the Lemmikäinen Legends already reside. Vänskä’s recording of the original version of the Legends is also on BIS, but his way with the final revision is equally imposing, although I could have done with just a little more atmosphere in ‘The Swan of Tuonela’. I’m also very partial to Leif Segerstam’s reading of ‘Lemmikäinen and the Maidens of the Island’ (Ondine), where the Wagnerian element is played to the full, but Vänskä’s shimmering ‘Lemmikäinen in Tuonola’ packs one hell of a wallop, largely due to the sheer power of the Lahti bass drum. ‘Lemmikäinen’s Return’ rounds things off well but the highlights are definitely ‘Lemmikäinen in Tuonola’ and The Wood-Nymph, both of them superb performances in spectacular SACD sound.” (on iTunes/on Amazon)
Rob also found lots to ignite the imagination in a Brahms anthology from Martin Frost and distinguished colleagues (namely Janine Jansen, Roland Pöntinen, Torleif Thedéen, Maxim Rysanov and Boris Brovtsyn) devoted to the great Clarinet Quintet, Clarinet Trio and six song transcriptions: “A dramatic sampling point towards the end of the Clarinet Quintet should clinch whether or not this extraordinary performance is for you. Cue 7’15” into the finale, the return of the work’s opening theme followed by a telling pause, a sombre string phrase (no vibrato, making the music sound much newer than it is), another ominous pause, and a brief clarinet cadenza before the work expires on a striking diminuendo. So much happens during the course of 37 minutes, mostly to do with rapt soft playing, especially from Martin Fröst and Janine Jansen, or the way members of the quintet weave in and around each other, often restlessly – in the Gipsy-style central section of the slow movement, for example, but also with a sense of calm, as in the first movement’s many balmy episodes. The listening experience gains extra poignancy knowing that BIS’s excellent annotator and Brahms expert Calum MacDonald – a lovely man – has just died. The performance of the more resilient Clarinet Trio, another winner, is in fact a reissue, but Fröst’s transcriptions of six Brahms Lieder are newly available, all of them sensitively handled, especially ‘Die Mainacht’ and ‘Feldeinsamkeit’. Wonderful.” (on iTunes/on Amazon)
Next up, ‘Chants nostalgiques, the latest recording for Avie from pianist Luiza Borac. Evan Dickerson greatly enjoyed this “innovative programme of songs with and without words”. He went on: “Following Borac’s surveys of Enescu and Lipatti, composer-pianist-conductor Constantin Silvestri hits the spotlight with Chants nostalgiques (1944), three short piano works that are melancholic meditations which receive innately sensitive interpretations from Borac. Insightful touch and unassuming understanding is also lent to Borac’s discreet augmentation of accompaniments for a varied group of German and Romanian songs recorded by tenor Ion Buzea in 1964. These songs are an artful and unique collaboration of sorts thanks to recording technology, but the results are enchanting. The nostalgic mood into this absorbing programme is effortlessly established and maintained by transcriptions and arrangements of Kreisler/Rachmaninov, Schubert/Liszt and Tárrega/Borac. Throughout it all Luiza Borac maintains a feeling for vocalise and proves more than able to delve into the emotional intensity of the music, combining the transcribers’ excesses of fancy alongside the intention of the original into an arresting union. Excellent sound quality with useful booklet notes – urgently recommended.” (on iTunes/on Amazon)
Evan also found plenty to admire in Lise de la Salle’s latest Naïve offering featuring Schumann’s Kinderszenen, Abegg-Variationen and towering Fantasie in C major, Op 17: “It doesn’t take a child prodigy to play Schumann’s Kinderszenen with a sense of wide-eyed wonder, but 26-year-old Lise de la Salle brings a careful blend of maturity and inquisitiveness to the much-loved set of 13 miniatures. In her hands some pieces (for example, ‘Knight of the hobby-horse’) gallop along with impetuous bravura confidence, whilst others (‘Child falling asleep’ or ‘The poet speaks’) are spacious and stylishly refined yet without being too artfully played. The work’s final pages come close to creating an other-worldly ambience. A genuinely youthful creative outpouring is enshrined in the Op 1 Abegg Variations, and de la Salle is alert to the work’s structural and melodic twists and turns. The sprawling C major Fantasie is notoriously hard to unify in structural terms, having both its introverted and fiery elements to contend with, but de la Salle is not to be intimidated. Her assurance of touch has substance when needed and her keen intellectuality serves the music well. One can sense her enjoyment of the challenge presented.” (on iTunes/on Amazon)
And last, a mighty triptych comprising Shostakovich’s Symphonies Nos 4, 5 and 6 is played with idiomatic understanding by the Mariinsky Orchestra under Valery Gergiev. Gavin Dixon was duly impressed with the latest instalment in this team’s ongoing cycle: “Gergiev is much criticised these days for the uneven quality of his interpretations. But his record with Shostakovich is long and consistently impressive. These new recordings are as good as any he’s produced. Taken from live performances in 2012/13 in the Mariinsky concert hall, they benefit from a committed, well-trained orchestra, world-class acoustics, and detailed and engaging SACD audio. Tempos are often fast, yet there is no loss of gravity or tonal weight, especially from the lower strings. The string sound in general can be a little homogeneous, lacking edge and focus, but the rest of the orchestra – the woodwind, brass and percussion – more than compensate with clear, incisive interjections. In light of Gergiev’s increasingly controversial politics, it should be noted that the finale of the Fifth Symphony is presented without a trace of irony. Unlike the composer himself, Gergiev clearly has no qualms about this music’s nationalist agenda.” (on iTunes/on Amazon)