Berg: Ehnes, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Davis (Chandos CD / SACD) ★★★★
This new disc duplicate four items from Chandos’s own 2009 set of Berg’s orchestral music under Mario Venzago. Except for the ‘Three Orchestral Pieces’ – where the timings of both performances are (amazingly) identical at 20:47 – Sir Andrew Davis’s approach is very different; broader, weightier with an enormous visceral impact. He supplies new transcriptions of the Piano Sonata and ‘Passacaglia’ employing a more austere musical palette than those used by Venzago which included cymbals, bass drum and tam-tam. The low wind and brass Davis chooses – the BBC orchestra on top form – have amazing definition. The Passacaglia’s climatic double-bass line can be felt as well as heard in this superlative wide-ranging recording made at Watford Colosseum this year. James Ehnes gives a magisterial performance of the valedictory Violin Concerto; passionate, lithe and full of imagination. Soloist, conductor, orchestra and production team contrive to make the closing Bachian chorale an immensely moving climax.
Bruckner: London Symphony Orchestra / Rattle (LSO Live CD/SACD) ★★★★★
Bruckner rethought, refashioned and rewrote most of his nine symphonies, often at the behest of well-meaning friends, in an effort to get them performed. In the case of Symphony No.4 Sir Simon Rattle says, “There is much wonderful music which remains almost entirely unplayed”, so on this two disc set we are offered a fascinating 126 minutes of music. The first disc has the familiar 1878-1881 version while the second contains alternative versions of the scherzo, Andante, and two versions of the finale, both in its 1878 jolly lighter ‘Folkvest’ guise and a longer version of the 1881 ending. All have been edited by German conductor and Bruckner scholar Benjamin Gunnar-Cohrs. It’s a truly fascinating musical feast for Bruckner enthusiasts. The close-miked live recording has impressive heft – brass and horns have great impact. There are no longueurs in Rattle’s strongly-paced, sinewy approach but there’s geniality too as in the amiable scherzo.
Bach: ‘Italian Concerto’, ‘French Overture’ etc., Mahan Esfahani (Hyperion) ★★★★
In April I reviewed Mahan Esfahani playing C.P.E. Bach’s D Major Concerto at Symphony Hall on his high-tech harpsichord designed by Jukka Olikka. Very impressive it was too in projection, expressive variation and as a demonstration of Esfahani’s mastery of the instrument. All those qualities are in evidence here on an engaging survey of works by J.S. Bach warmly recorded in the airy acoustic of St John’s Parish Church in Loughton, Essex. There’s nothing mechanical or rigid about Esfahani’s playing; in the Italian Concerto’s Andante for example, he allows himself plenty of rhythmic licence, occasionally holding back the flow to create tension, and then launching into a dazzling, galloping Presto finale. He gives the French Overture a winning combination of Gallic swagger and mock-pomposity, finding great fun in the rustic Gigue and serenity in the beautiful Sarabande. The four Duets are delightful miniatures and the two Capriccios full of variety.