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NEW REVIEWS OF BEETHOVEN, FILM MUSIC, BACH AND MAHLER CDs FROM NORMAN STINCHCOMBE


BEETHOVEN: Midori / Lucerne Festival Strings ★★★★

Midori was a child prodigy but has only now, at the age of forty-eight, recorded Beethoven's concerto. It almost didn't happen. Scheduled as part of a Swiss concert in March, followed by a UK and Far East tour, Covid struck and the concert was pulled at 48 hours notice – but the recording was allowed to go ahead. This obviously focused the minds of soloists and orchestra, "the recording experience felt as if we were racing against the clock," said Midori. The urgency manifests itself in flowing speeds, no dreamy lingering or triple underlined point-making, but great elan, transparency and unanimity. There was no conductor, but leader Daniel Dodds is credited and I assume he was de facto director taking his cue from Midori – she and the players were all "breathing in harmony", she added. Beethoven's G major and F major Romances are rendered with tender beauty – a very satisfying CD.

Norman Stinchcombe

GREAT CLASSIC FILM MUSIC VOLUME II: Philharmonic Promenade Orchestra / Sutherland ★★

Compared to releases by specialist labels like Silva Screen and Varese Sarabande, or carefully curated collections from Chandos, Somm's CD looks thrown together. Neither the films Finian's Rainbow, Spring Parade or September Affair nor the music from them are "classics". Fifty years ago record companies nicknamed Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21 "Elvira Madigan" after a soft-focus Scandinavian film about a Danish tight-rope walker (I kid you not) which used the slow movement on the soundtrack. This hoary old marketing ploy here becomes an excuse to play that bleeding chunk of Mozart's masterpiece. There's no connecting theme here: snippets of Walton's music for Olivier's Henry V and Richard III rub shoulders with the theme from Star Trek – The Next Generation. The pick-up orchestra – from Holland's radio-city Hilversum – are competent but inspired under Iain Sutherland. The recordings, taken from radio broadcasts, both live and studio, from 1988-1995 were, surprisingly, made in analogue.

Norman Stinchcombe

BACH GOLDBERG VARIATIONS: Parker Ramsay ★★★★

Before dismissing out of hand the idea of Bach's sublime Goldberg Variations played on a harp, consider the composer's liberal view when transcribing his own music for diverse instruments. The young American Parker Ramsay, a former organ scholar at King's College Cambridge, said he wanted to play the work on an instrument that combined "the raw pluckiness of the harpsichord, but with the expressive qualities of the piano" – and found it in the modern pedal harp. Bach's chromaticism creates problems for the harpist and Ramsay has to play some passages more slowly than usual but this suits the lush reverberant King's College chapel's acoustics where the recording was made. The harp's sustaining power, however, means the bass line can be maintained with other voices played simultaneously – which Variation 20 makes clear. Approached with an open mind this is a fascinating listen and the sound, engineering by Arne Akselberg, is luminous.

Norman Stinchcombe


MAHLER. DAS LIED VON DER ERDE: Connolly / Smith / RSO Berlin / Jurowski ★★★

There are many recordings of Mahler's great song-cycle-cum symphony and several vocal permutations. Most popular is the mezzo-soprano / tenor combination but even here tonal qualities and weight of voice will affect the listener's preferences. Pentatone's SACD / CD has Dame Sarah Connolly, inclining toward the contralto, and lyric tenor Robert Dean Smith, both of whom have recorded the work before. Smith, like most tenors, is strained by the high tessitura of Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde – listen to the great Fritz Wunderlich, for Otto Klemperer, for ease and beauty of tone. Dame Sarah is not as fresh-voiced as Klemperer's mezzo, Christa Ludwig or as affecting as Kathleen Ferrier's in her 1952 Decca recording. The big plus here is Vladimir Jurowski's swift, muscular, and not at all mystical, approach which catches the deep-lying angry and febrile qualities in Mahler's score which are often overlooked by conductors concentrating on valedictory beauty.

Norman Stinchcombe

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