Beethoven and Sawyers CD reviews


BEETHOVEN: Barnatan / ASMF / Gilbert (Pentatone 2CDs PTC 5186824) ★★★★

A crucial factor in assessing the second volume of Inon Barnatan's survey of Beethoven's piano concertos will be the listener's attitude to op.61a, Beethoven's transcription of his Violin Concerto. I've never been convinced by it, only finding interest in the witty cadenza for piano and timpani, subsequently adopted by violinists for the original. Like it or not, the Israeli-American soloist, with the alert and skilful support of the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields under Alan Gilbert, makes the strongest possible case for it. Elsewhere there's lots to enjoy: a sparkling second concerto, with Barnatan revelling in its genial high-jinks and a majestic and imposing Emperor concerto, without pomposity. Also a wonderfully uplifting Choral Fantasy – a dry run for the Ninth Symphony's finale – where Barnatan sounds convincingly improvisatory, as Beethoven wanted, with the London Voices, including some luxury-casting soloists, exuding joyful bounty. Good sound, but why CD-only from SACD specialists Pentatone?

Norman Stinchcombe

SAWYERS: BBC National Orchestra of Wales / Woods (Nimbus Alliance NI 6405) ★★★★

Philip Sawyers oratorio Mayflower on the Sea of Time, to have been premiered at Worcester Cathedral, has been cancelled due to the Coronavirus pandemic. So this latest release in conductor Kenneth Woods' survey of his orchestral music, is thus doubly welcome. The former violinist's big break as a composer came when his student work Symphonic Music for Strings and Brass (1972) was championed by the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra in America. They commissioned Hommage to Kandinsky (2014) asking him not to spare the orchestral forces. He obliged and the result is an exciting, vibrant symphonic poem as colourful as the Russian painter's abstract art with the orchestra and Woods revelling in its rich textures and intense emotional sweep. Sawyers' three-movement Symphony No.4 (2018) employs smaller forces and has a tense, dramatic and densely-argued first movement and ends with a serenely beautiful Adagio. Excellent playing and recording quality to match.

Norman Stinchcombe

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