Strauss, Gershwin and Ben-Haim CD reviews


STRAUSS: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra / Märkl ★★★★

When we think of Richard Strauss's orchestral music it's primarily his richly scored tone poems. It's easy to overlook his wizardry with light music and especially the dance – think of his opera Rosenkavalier. That facility is exemplified by his Tanzsuite (Dance Suite) of 1923 for chamber orchestra, ballet music commissioned by the Vienna Opera. It's a labour of love, delightfully mixing pastiche and orchestral reimagining of eight dances by baroque composer François Couperin which were originally composed for harpsichord. Try not to laugh at the Carillon with Strauss's kaleidoscopic mixture of celesta, bells and harp, or to sigh as the closing march dies slowly away. The NZSO, under Jun Märkl, don't have the suavity, richness and echt-Strauss sound of Rudolf Kempe's Dresden orchestra (Warner) but they're nifty, gracious and light on their feet. Naxos perfectly pair it with Strauss's later expanded and re-orchestrated version Divertimento Op.86, a welcome rarity. Enjoy!

Norman Stinchcombe


This version of George Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F s the first recording based on the new critical edition, which cleaned up the the composer's sometimes messy original. Differences are slight – no woodblock smacks, some glockenspiel flourishes and a few extra solo piano bars. Gershwin specialist Kevin Cole knows the style intimately and the student players of the National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic, under David Allan Miller, acquit themselves well. If you want pizzazz and dazzling playing Previn's vintage LSO recording (Warner) is still the tops. Walter Piston was the archetypal academic composer – forty years at Harvard, four music theory textbooks and eight symphonies. No.5 (1954) is, as the booklet says, "expertly crafted and steeped in structural logic" – but exciting it ain't. Joan Tower's Sequoia (1981) is, in a raucous and exuberant way, and the young players clearly enjoy themselves. John Harbison's Remembering Gatsby is a fun little faux 1920s foxtrot.

Norman Stinchcombe

BEN-HAIM: Barainsky / Bradbury / BBC Philharmonic / Wellber ★★★★

Here's a composer who led two lives. The first was as Munich-born Paul Frankenburger, an up and coming young Jewish conductor, and burgeoning composer, in 1930s Augsburg. Then came the Nazis. Frankenburger learned Hebrew and emigrated to Palestine, becoming Paul Ben-Haim and, by the time of his death in 1984, a cultural hero. Chandos' hour-long disc covers both lives. The erotic symphonic poem Pan, for soprano and orchestra (1931) shows him under the spell of Debussy at his most sensual – Claudia Barainsky smoulders as the maiden ravished by the Greek god. Pastorale varièe (1945), for clarinet and orchestra, has a dancing neo-classical grace and lightness enhanced by soloist John Bradbury's elegant playing. The orchestra, under Omer Meir Wellber change styles seamlessly and unleash mordant power for the righteously angry and stormy wartime Symphony No.1, composed as Tel Aviv was bombed by Mussolini's air-force, with its nobly soaring Psalm-inspired slow movement.

Norman Stinchcombe

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