latest Beethoven, Bruch, Donizetti and Walton CD reviews


BEETHOVEN: Nikolai Lugansky ★★

I came to this disc after spending a week listening to Jean-Efflam Bavouzet's complete set of piano sonatas on Chandos. This did Lugansky no favours. Bavouzet captures Beethoven's kaleidoscopic emotional shifts – mysticism, manic dynamism, raucous humour – realized within a dazzling array of changing musical strategies. Lugansky eschewed the obvious, and logical, coupling of the last three sonatas by swapping Op 110 for Op 101. It's Op.101 which comes off best, with the second movement's march rhythms crisply and energetically articulated, while tenderly shaping the succeeding inward and yearning (sehnsuchtvoll) slow movement. In Op.109's concluding theme-and-variations Lugansky overdoes the contrast with the preceding prestissimo movement by playing the opening excessively slowly – Bavouzet captures its singing expressiveness at a more naturally flowing pace. While Kovacevich's (Warner Classics) is trenchant and assertive, Lugansky's Op.111 is relentlessly aggressive – Bavouzet combines iron fist with velvet glove – and in the arietta misses Beethoven's ineffable into-the-empyrean wonder.

Norman Stinchcombe

BRUCH: Mona & Rica Bard / Staatskapelle Halle / Matiakh ★★★

Covid rendered last year's 250th Beethoven celebrations a damp squib so it's not surprising that Max Bruch's centenary went virtually unnoticed. His big hit, the first violin concerto, has overshadowed the rest of his enjoyable, melodic music. The Concerto for Two Pianos certainly deserves an outing especially when played with the unanimity and zest the Bards bring to it – "four hands, two sisters, one pulse", as the booklet notes puts it. The concerto begins with a dark-toned prelude before launching into a solemn, romantic andante which then transforms into a lively allegro. The Bards ensure that the gear changes are smooth, assisted by conductor Ariana Matiakh. The fourth movement also has a pensive introduction before switching to a lively, fizzing finale with the sisters' dexterity to the fore. The Suite on Russian Themes, a colourfully orchestrated set of folk tunes from funeral march to village dance, is also good fun.

Norman Stinchcombe

DONIZETTI IL PARIA: Shagimuratova / Barbera / Britten Sinfona / Opera Rara Chorus / Elder ★★★★★

Donizetti's tragic opera Il Paria (The Pariah), set in 15th century India with an obscurely motivated plot, was a flop and disappeared after its 1829 premiere. Donizetti's high opinion of its music is thoroughly vindicated in this splendid performance revealing vocal and orchestral riches. Its a triumph in highly demanding roles for Russian coloratura soprano Albina Shagimuratova, as high-caste Brahmin Neala, and American tenor René Barbera as her lover Idamore, the low-caste Pariah. Barbera rings out a fearless series of high top C sharps, taken in head voice as in Donizetti's time, while Shagimuratova sounds both beautiful and emotionally engaging. Sir Mark Elder and the orchestra revel in the score's lavish and colourful details such as the gossamer flute and harp accompaniment and pizzicato strings and cello solo which feature in arias for the two lovers. Excellent all-round work by the performers make this an outstanding release by Opera Rara.

Norman Stinchcombe

WALTON: Jones / Bradley / Lowe / Thwaite ★★★

In 75 minutes these talented players give us a synoptic view of Sir William Walton's chamber music involving violin and piano. It spans thirty years beginning with the work of a precocious teenager, the Piano Quartet of 1919 – although the revised 1975 version is played here – to the Violin Sonata of 1949. With his usual jaundiced evaluation Walton described the Quartet as the work of a "drooling baby" while conceding it to be "very attractive". So it is, in the hands of Annabel Thwaite (piano), Matthew Jones (violin), Sarah-Jane Bradley (viola) and Tim Lowe (cello), combining Walton's melodic facility stiffened with some edgy stylistic borrowings from Stravinsky and Bartok. The Violin Sonata was a commission from Yehudi Menuhin for the hard-up composer and its theme-and-variatons finale – a favourite Walton device – uses music from his score for Olivier's film Henry V, as does the lighter Two Pieces for Violin and Piano.

Norman Stinchcombe

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