New Chandos CDs reviewed by Norman Stinchcombe

Chandos is the reigning ‘Classical Record Label of the Year’ – an accolade that is thoroughly deserved. The gigantic international entertainment companies swallow up and ditch famous labels of the past – farewell Philips and EMI Classics – endlessly repackage their back catalogue (how many remastered Karajan recordings do we need?) and concentrate on a few high-profile glossily packaged artists. Independent labels like Chandos do what the giants of the past once did; they allow conductors, orchestras and soloists to pursue their interests and give them room and resources to flourish. The huge success of conductor John Wilson and the revivified Sinfonia of London is a prime example. The partnership has given us award-winning discs of Korngold, Ravel, Respighi and English string music recorded in a location – St Augustine’s Church, Kilburn – whose acoustic splendour reminds one of the legendary venues of the past such as Kingsway Hall and Vienna’s Sofiensaal. After a brilliant recording of Rachmaninoff’s third symphony Wilson is back with an equally fine Symphony No.2 paired with a delightful lollipop – Stokowski’s lush orchestration of the composer’s famous piano Prelude in C sharp. ★★★★★(CD & SACD) Wilson and his team relish the symphony’s intense romanticism, the surging Adagio is gorgeous, matching LSO’s playing under Previn in his classic 1970s analogue recording. The Sinfonia cannot quite match the stratospheric heights of the Concertgebouw under Ashkenazy but they are pretty close and Chandos’s engineers – utilizing high resolution SACD – match the legendary Decca sound.

Edward Gardner’s Schubert symphony series with the CBSO has reached its third instalment with a disc of No. 1 and No. 7. I reviewed these in concert last July at Birmingham Town Hall and the recording sessions took place there on the two succeeding days. They capture the qualities of the live performances perfectly. Gardner adopts brisk tempi using a small body of strings, with first and second fiddles divided antiphonally allowing the excellent CBSO wind players to shine. This matches the 16-year-old composer’s style ideally; light, tuneful and undemanding. Gardner takes No.7’s ‘Tragic’ moniker with a pinch of salt, not vainly trying to find depths that aren’t there, but there’s fire and tremendous panache in the opera overture ‘Fierrebras’. (CD & SACD) ★★★★★ If the rest of John Storgårds’ Shostakovich symphony series with the BBC Philharmonic is a fine as their pairing of No.12 ‘The Year 1917’ and No.15 (CD & SACD) ★★★★★ then listeners are in for a treat. No.12 has often been dismissed as film music but this tremendous performance may convince even the sceptics. The opening is truly menacing with the orchestral hustle-and-bustle of ‘Revolutionary Petrograd’, a brooding portrait of Lenin in ‘Razliv’ and finale played without irony but immense power with the orchestra at full throttle. Critics have puzzled over Shostakovich’s finale symphony – with its teasing quotations from Wagner and Rossini’s ‘William Tell’ overture – probing for hidden depths. I suspect it’s a leg-pull, a Sphinx-without-a-secret and Storgårds’ never bogs it down with excessive introspection, It’s delightfully played and superbly engineered. And what a bargain too – with 85 minutes of music. In his 70th year Peter Donohoe is having an Indian summer in the recording studio. His second volume of Mendelssohn’s ‘Songs Without Words’ exhibits the strengths of its predecessor: crisp playing, sensitive but forthright and with no hint of the Victorian vapidity these pieces have an (unfair) reputation for. The two dozen offer plenty of variety and there are some welcome bonuses on the 81 minute CD – the ‘Seventeen Serious Variations’, a Fantasy on ‘The Last Rose of Summer’ and Donohoe’s scintillating scherzo from ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ transcribed by Rachmaninoff. ★★★★★

Norman Stinchcombe

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