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NORMAN STINCHCOMBE ENJOYS ITALIAN OPERA, CRAMER, SHOSTAKOVICH, GURNEY AND HOWELLS IN HIS LATEST CD REVIEWS



ANIMA RARA: Jaho / Orquestra de la Communitat Valenciana / Battistoni ★★★★★
Ermonela Jaho devotes her album to arias associated with Rosina Storchio who sang Cio-Cio San in the 1904 premiere of Puccini's Madama Butterfly. It's a perfect fit for the Albanian soprano whose performance at Covent Garden in 2017 was greeted rapturously. This album begins and ends with Un bel di, vedremo and Tu?Tu? Piccolo Iddio and show Jaho's strengths: intense emotional identification with a role, fearless high notes and a touch of spinto steel. She does vocal fireworks too – the twelve-minute mad scene from Mascagni's Lodoletta (one of several rarities included) is a tour-de-force. Despite the airbrushed cover photo Jaho is no ingenue but a mature singer (46) at the height of her powers. Her Violetta oozes knowledge of the world (passion, regret) – she has all the notes for the part but a lot more too. The Spanish orchestra under Andrea Battistoni gives admirable support, showcasing an immensely talented artist.
Norman Stinchcombe



CRAMER: Howard Shelley / London Mozart Players ★★★
German-born but London-based Johann Baptist Cramer was a child prodigy, and an immensely successful concert pianist whose playing was admired by Beethoven. The three piano concertos included here – Op. 10, Op. 26 and Op.51 – cover a period of twenty years from the zenith of classicism to the dawn of romanticism. They date from the year after Mozart's death (1792) to the premiere of Beethoven's Emperor piano concerto (1812). But anyone expecting great advances or adventures either in style or emotional depth will be disappointed. Cramer's virtues of craftsmanship, melodiousness, brilliant utilisation of keyboard technique – lots of ear-tickling runs – remain the same. It sounds like a cross between J.C. "English" Bach's galant style and Hummel's showy virtuosity. This is Howard Shelley's third Cramer disc and he plays, and directs the orchestra from the keyboard, in vigorous and virtuosic performances which sometimes persuade the listener that this pleasant music is more substantial.
Norman Stinchcombe



SHOSTAKOVICH: Trio Wanderer / Montier / Gaugué / Semenchuk ★★★★
Shostakovich's String Quartet in G minor was premiered in 1940 but there is little of the foreboding one might expect, for Russia and Germany still shared a peace-pact of political convenience and any patriotic breast-beating would have been out of place. Instead Shostakovich opens with the pianist in austere Bach-style musing, played with restraint by Vincent Coq. It's a world away from Ashkenazy's (with-historical-hindsight) ferocity. The Trio Wanderer, with Catherine Montier (violin) and Christophe Gaugué, give a plain-speaking performance, devoid of rhetoric. Too plain occasionally – a little more impishness in the scherzo would have been welcome. The players' clarity is matched by the sound which is expertly open and balanced. Belarus mezzo-soprano Ekatarina Semenchuk is the excellent soloist in Shostakovich's Seven Romances on Poems by Alexander Blok singing with an intensity worthy of the great soprano Galina Vishnevskaya for whom it was written in 1967. Texts and translations are included.
Norman Stinchcombe


GURNEY & HOWELLS: Williams / Dussek / Bridge Quartet ★★★★★
The 1925 published version of Ivor Gurney's song cycle The Western Playland (and of Sorrow), incorporating the composer's revisions, was an error-strewn mess. It was not until Philip Lancaster's 2013 version – the one performed here – that we could hear Gurney's final intentions. Roderick Williams is a supremely intelligent interpreter of Housman's texts whether Gurney is dramatic or lyrical. Williams expertly conveys the ambiguous mood of Is my Team Ploughing – is the dead narrator comforted or dismayed that everything is fine without him? Williams has excellent support from Michael Dussek (piano) on other songs by Gurney (a beautiful By a Bierside) and four by Herbert Howells. Gurney's String Quartet in D minor, composed in 1924-1925 when he was in a mental hospital, here gets a world premiere recording. It's a melodic and typically English pastoral work given a fine performance by the Bridge Quartet. Excellent sound and 80 minutes of music.
Norman Stinchcombe

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