Bartok, SImpson, Beethoven and Rachmaninov CD reviews by Norman Stinchcombe


BARTOK: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Dausgaard ★★★★
The second volume in Onyx's series of Bartok's orchestral works brings us a bustling, bristling and blazing account of his ballet score The Miraculous Mandarin. Under conductor Thomas Dausgaard the orchestra tear into this fiercely imagined and grisly work with all the ferocity it demands. Censored when it appeared in the 1920s for its plot involving prostitution and murder it's often played in the suite Bartok devised to rescue it from obscurity. Dausgaard gives us the complete score plus thirty extra bars rescued by the composer's son Peter for the revised twenty-first century score – although you'll need one to notice the additions. Seedy the plot may be but not the music with Dausgaard conjuring up the weird sonorities for the Mandarin's resuscitation and pawky humour for the seductress's rejected clients. The early Suite No.2 and Hungarian Peasant Songs for Orchestra joyfully reveal Bartok's lighter side, all captured in excellent sound.
Norman Stinchcombe

SIMPSON: London Symphony Orchestra, Davis / London Philharmonic Orchestra, Groves ★★★★
This release celebrates the centenary of Leamington-born Robert Simpson, a celebrated writer on music and a doughty BBC Radio 3 producer whose confrontations with his avant-garde-worshipping boss Sir William Glock were legendary. Simpson favoured traditional forms and composed eleven symphonies. Largely ignored by concert promoters they have been widely disseminated on disc in Hyperion's fine series under Vernon Handley. Handley's recording of the fifth, however, is eclipsed by this live performance of the work's 1973 premiere under Andrew Davis. Simpson follows his hero Beethoven in building large structures from small musical units with a dynamic and sometimes aggressive style. Simpson's spiky scherzo sits between two serene miniature slow movements topped off with a blazing con fuoco finale. The performance of the sixth, under Sir Charles Groves is pretty tardy – Simpson hated it and revised the work – so stick with Handley. The BBC broadcasts are sonically limited but perfectly acceptable.
Norman Stinchcombe

BEETHOVEN: Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra / Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh / Honeck ★★★
The Austrian conductor Manfred Honeck's background may lead one to suspect a Beethoven Ninth of a very different cut. Perhaps with the solid, weighty traditional virtues of Walter Weller's 1980s CBSO recording – he and Honeck both began their careers as string players in the Vienna Philharmonic. Not a bit of it. Honeck follows the new century's approach and at 62:48 he's within two seconds of the Leipzig recording by Riccardo Chailly – Master-of-the-Metronome. No shrouded mystery in the symphony's opening but a tense sense of expectation. Honeck excels in the exciting scherzo with walloping brass and percussion and the Pittsburgh divided violins bring extra clarity. The adagio is light and dancing rather than profound but there's a sterling finale with a good quartet of soloists – tenor Werner Güra excellent – and a first rate chorus. The Reference Recordings SACD has wide dynamics but live recording means it's closely miked and slightly claustrophobic.
Norman Stinchcombe

RACHMANINOFF: London Symphony Orchestra / Rattle ★★★★

Rachmaninoff's Symphony No.2 was an audience favourite in Simon Rattle's CBSO days. Sadly he never recorded it with them and his 1984 Los Angeles orchestra recording is deleted. This new LSO Live recording has all Rattle's conducting strengths – an acute ear for orchestral detail, colour and rhythmic elan and he uses the full uncut score. The virtuoso orchestra is off the leash – the finale positively whoops with joy – but romance is kept in check. If you want a heart-on-sleeve fulsome performance then 1973-vintage Andre Previn's your man (Warner Classics). Rattle is lithe and exciting and there's some gorgeous wind-playing, including a captivating clarinet in the Adagio. I found the close miking, necessitated by live recording, gave high strings a harsh glare but others listeners may not be so troubled. If the LSO starts recording at their St Luke's rehearsal centre, as the concert lockdown continues, the results will be interesting.

Norman Stinchcombe

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