New classical recordings reviewed by Norman Stinchcombe

Strauss & Debussy: London Symphony Orchestra / François-Xavier Roth (LSO Live CD & SACD) ★★★★

Live recordings of Richard Strauss’s tone poem ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ are very difficult to balance. Giving the opening organ 32ft pedal note sufficient weight without recording it too closely, requiring a disorientating change in focus when the orchestra enters, is a difficult hurdle. It’s one Andris Nelsons’ live Boston recording found insuperable – it sounds as if the listener’s head is wedged in the organ pipe. No such problem with this fine new LSO recording with the engineers capturing the music’s power and the orchestra’s poise. Roth also ensures that the rest of the score is not an anti-climax after the famous ‘2001’ opening fanfare. Succeeding episodes are well characterized and delineated with a beautifully sweet and lilting Viennese ‘Tanzlied’ from the first violin. There’s a substantial bonus with the music from Debussy’s ballet ‘Jeux’ (originally staged as a surreal tennis match) where Roth coaxes deliciously subtle playing from the LSO.

Cavalieri, ‘Rappresentatione di Anima et di Corpo’: Fritsch, Schmutzhard, Il Giardino Armonico / Giovanni Antonini (Naxos DVD Region Free) ★★★

For all of us who thought that ‘L’Orfeo’ was the first opera comes a rebuttal. Emilio de Cavalieri's ‘Rappresentatione di Anima et di Corpo' was premiered in 1600 in Rome – seven years before Monteverdi’s work. The misconception is due to the fact that the work – a dialogue between Soul and Body, employing singers, chorus, and an extensive orchestra and performed in costume – is best known on disc where, divorced from stage action, it sounds like an oratorio, an impression reinforced by its spoken prologue. There is some fine singing in this 2021 production from the Theatre an der Wien (Vienna) both from the choir and Anett Fritsch (Anima) and Daniel Schmutzhard (Corpo) with the original instrument orchestra under Antonini weaving some wonderful strands of sound. Visually though I found Robert Carsen’s production ugly and anachronistic – the principal couple dressed in denims, a chorus suspended from wires wearing padded bikinis.

Korngold, String Quartets 1-3: Tippett Quartet (Naxos CD) ★★★★

These three contrasting quartets cover more than twenty years of Korngold’s creative life, from his post-wunderkind years in Vienna to his time in the United States as primarily a composer of Hollywood film scores. String Quartet No.1 in A major (1922-3) was written two years after his huge success with his operatic masterpiece ‘Die Tote Stadt’ and demonstrates his mastery of the quartet medium. The opening sounds terse and astringent Hindemith-like but within two minutes the textures become lusher and we are in Korngold’s familiar richly melodic world. There’s a similar mixture in the Quartet No.2 in E flat Major (1933) with a lovely ‘Con moto sentimento’ slow movement and a deft waltz variation finale. The 1945 Quartet No.3 in D is a delightful work with a witty and catchy folk tune slow movement. The Tippett Quartet are on top form throughout and the recording quality is first class.

Whispers of Tradition’: Max Volbers (Genuin Classics CD) ★★★★

It is tempting fate to tell listeners that they will not have heard anything quite like this before but I’ll take a chance. The recorder player Max Volbers won the 2021 Deutscher Musikwettbewerb, the German equivalent of our own BBC Young Musician of the Year, and is clearly of virtuoso standard. What I found especially commendable about this disc is that he has not taken the easy option of recording just standard works but has put together a highly entertaining programme of transcriptions, paraphrases and pastiches (many by Volbers himself) of works by Bach, Monteverdi, Purcell, Vivaldi and more. He and eleven other musicians using 26 different instruments – including various recorders, archlute, harpsichord, violin and viola da gamba – provide variety, fun and diversion. Their take on Vivaldi’s Flute Concerto in G major and Purcell’s ‘Fairy Queen’ Chacony will be familiar, but how about Thanos Sakellaridis’s novelty ‘Please enter the Underground’?

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