Sibelius, Mozart and James Joyce CDs reviewed


SIBELIUS: Davidsen / Bergen Philharmonic / Gardner ★★★★★

Opera's shooting star Lise Davidsen gives a stupendous performance of Sibelius's Luonnotar. For sheer beauty Söderström and Isokoski excel the Norwegian soprano but Davidsen turns this orchestral song into a miniature opera, inhabiting the mythical sky-maiden who helps to nurture the world into existence. Soaring, desolate and exultant by turn, moods realized in burnished tone. Edward Gardner unleashes his impressive Bergen players knowing that Davidsen can ride the waves of sound. Wow. It's a hard act to follow but Gardner almost succeeds in Sibelius's final tone-poemTapiola, depicting the deity of the forest, giving us every musical and emotional transformation of the theme with lashings of detail and no skimping. It's impressive, but Karajan's magisterial '60s Berlin recording captures the trees and the wood. In the Pelléas and Mélisande suite Davidsen fines down her heroic tone for Mélisande's plaintive song, and there's characterful playing too in the miniatures Rakastava and Varsang.


Mozart wrote these three quartets for King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia, hence the soubriquet, who was a talented cellist. Mozart deftly brought the cello to the fore ensuring the King would have plenty of prominence, sometimes leading melodies, without excessive technical demands. The Doric's John Myerscough revels in his featured role but all four make this disc a joyful experience. In the F major quartet K.590 the Menuetto begins with a sweet melody in a stately manner and then in barges a gruff country band complete with drone bass – a Haydn-style collision – while in the finale the Doric stylishly convey Mozart's disarmingly witty take on learned material. There's plenty to hear too as the Doric observe Mozart's repeats – 37:30 to the Alban Berg's 23 minutes. K.575 in D and K.589 in B flat blossom in a similar combination of energy and grace – wonderful. Chandos's sound (Potton Hall) is perfect.

JAMES JOYCE'S FAVOURITE SONGS: Martyn Hill, Meriel & Peter Dickinson ★★

The title should be, Joyce's favourite song settings of his own poems. The sleeve notes makes high claims for composer G. Molyneux Palmer, the English-born Stanford pupil who spent his last thirty years in Dublin, and set the poems in the collection Chamber Music. The result is "a kind of Irish Winterreise" the sleeve notes claim. Joyce was a wordsmith of amazing brilliance and dazzling ingenuity but even his greatest advocate, the novelist Anthony Burgess, describes the fifth in Chamber Music as "the most atrocious lyrics ever penned by a great writer". The fine tenor Martyn Hill, on top form in this 1986 BBC recording accompanied by Peter Dickinson, makes the most of them but I found Palmer's music amiable but unmemorable. The 13 songs in The Joyce Book, by different composers and sung by mezzo-soprano Meriel Dickinson (recorded 1981) are more interesting with E.J.Moeran's the pick of the bunch.

Norman Stinchcombe

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