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SCHOENBERG, BACH AND VAUGHAN WILLIAMS CDs REVIEWED BY NORMAN STINCHCOMBE


VERKLÄRTE NACHT : Skelton / Rice / BBC Symphony Orchestra / Gardner ★★★★★

Schoenberg's early masterpiece is the focal point, but what makes this intriguing disc such a rich musical experience are the lesser known pieces. Schoenberg's string sextet Verklärte Nacht ("Transfigured Night") was composed in 1899 but the later version for string orchestra is used here. Based on a poem by Richard Dehmel – controversial sexual politics pioneer – it's the essence of fervid late romanticism and the orchestra, under Edward Gardner, give us a performance rich and febrile blooming in the expansive Chandos recording. Schoenberg never set Dehmel's words but Oskar Fried did (1901) with mezzo Christine Rice and tenor Stuart Skelton outstanding in music that depicts the couple moving from dark despair to radiant love. Skelton also excels as the delirious soldier in the expressionistic Fieber (Fever) by (amazingly!) Merry Widow composer Franz Lehár. Korngold's beautiful four Songs of Farewell (1921), with Skelton on top from, are also excavated gems. Absolutely outstanding.

Norman Stinchcombe


BACH GOLDBERG VARIATIONS: Pavel Kolesnikov ★★★

This work, so the probably apocryphal story goes, was a commission from the insomniac nobleman Count Kaiserlyngk who wanted some keyboard music to lull him to sleep. It worked a treat played by court harpsichordist Johann Goldberg – but there'd be no chance of him nodding off if Pavel Kolesnikov had been the player. The young Siberian's traversal may be many things but soporific isn't one of them. This is a freshly-minted approach to the great work which I found by turns entrancing, annoying and puzzling. Kolesnikov plays repeats and varies them second time around – no surprise there – but its how much they vary that jolts the listener. In the eighth, for example, the rhythm is changed entirely. If a variation is played in staccato harpsichord style the repeat comes in Chopinesque legato. Revelatory or idiosyncratically wilful? Kolesnikov's generous use of his Yamaha grand's sustaining pedal will also raise some eyebrows.

Norman Stinchcombe

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: BBC Symphony Orchestra / Brabbins ★★★★


Like many good ideas Hyperion's is so obvious one wonders why it has not not been thought of before. That there is a connection between Vaughan Williams' fifth symphony of 1943 and his 1951 opera (or "Morality" as he called it) based on John Bunyan's A Pilgrim's Progress is well-known. Now we can hear side-by-side the symphony and the music illustrating Bunyan's story, a project which occupied the composer for nearly fifty years. Martyn Brabbins conducts a performance which gives the symphony's contemplative moods, including a wonderfully serene Romanza, their full due, aided by an expertly engineered and spacious Watford Coliseum recording. It's energetic too, swifter than Haitink's fine version, with zestful orchestral playing in the lively scherzo. The BBC Symphony Chorus and a talented team of soloists perform the Bunyan extracts, some dating back to 1906. Try mezzo-soprano Kitty Whately in The Angel's Song, radiant in its beautiful simplicity.

Norman Stinchcombe

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