Norman Stinchcombe reviews the latest classical disc releases

Stanford ‘Requiem’: CBSO, University of Birmingham Voices, soloists / Brabbins (Hyperion Records CD) ★★★★★

If you are seeking the visceral impact of Verdi or the existential terror of Mozart, then look elsewhere. Sir Charles Villiers Stanford’s Requiem, first performed at Birmingham Town Hall in 1897, is on a massive scale with seven sections lasting more than 70 minutes but it is a predominantly a gentle, intimate and consolatory work, composed in memory of Stanford’s close friend Lord Frederic Leighton. The performance, recorded at Symphony Hall last year, is superb, with the orchestral and vocal forces conducted by Martyn Brabbins and the production team utilizing the hall’s expansive acoustic adroitly. I saw the choir perform there recently – in Orff’s ‘Carmina Burana’ – and they were mightily impressive in diction and projection, as they are again here. The quartet of soloists fit the music perfectly; Marta Fontanals-Simmons, James Way, Ross Ramgobin and above all soprano Carolyn Sampson, sounding angelic in the ‘Gradual’ accompanied by strings and Marie-Christine Zupancic’s ethereal flute.

Monteverdi, ‘The Monteverdi Trilogy’: English Baroque Soloists, Monteverdi Choir / Gardiner (Opus Arte 3 DVDs) ★★★★

Not really a trilogy of course but a handy title for the cardboard slipcase which encloses the previously issued performance of the composer’s three operas, now offered at a bargain three-for-the-price-of-one. All three offer John Eliot Gardiner’s virtues of clarity and scrupulous scholarship, excellent playing and his exceptionally talented choir with unfussy productions (unlike Rinaldo Allessandrini’s rival set) letting the music weave its magic. All three were recorded in 2017, the 450th anniversary of Monteverdi’s birth, at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice. ‘L’Orfeo’ has Krystian Adam (Orfeo) and Hana Blažíková (La Musica/Euridice). Blažíková is impressive in the villainous title role in ‘L’incoronazione di Poppea’ with Kangmin Justin Kim as Nerone, while ‘Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria’ has Furio Zanasi as the world-weary Ulisse returning home with Lucile Richardot as his long-suffering wife Penelope. All are well filmed in widescreen with stereo and DTS 5.1 surround sound and optional English subtitles.

Elgar: Soloists, Hallé Orchestra, Hallé Choir and Hallé Children’s Choir / Elder (Hallé 6 CD box set) ★★★★

Between 2008 and 2012 Sir Mark Elder recorded Elgar’s three great oratorios at the HalléBridgewater Hall home. They are now repackaged in a bargain box and have stood the test of time well. The CBSO’s recent magnificent performance of ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ featured Alice Coote’s radiant Angel which she sang in a breakthrough appearance for Elder in 2008. She and Bryn Terfel (Priest / Angel of the Agony) are excellent but Paul Groves’ light and youthful tenor won’t suit all tastes. It was recorded in studio conditions but the sound is very recessed. ‘The Apostles’ and ‘The Kingdom’ were recorded live (with rehearsal patches) and are much more vivid. Coote is an impressive Mary Magdalene in ‘The Apostles’ with Rebecca Evans’ refulgent Virgin Mary. In ‘The Kingdom’ those roles are taken by Susan Bickley and Claire Rutter – very well too, but outshone by the irreplaceable Margaret Price and Yvonne Minton for Boult (EMI).

Steve Reich, ‘Music for 18 Musicians’: Colin Currie Group, Synergy Vocals (Colin Currie Records CD & SACD) ★★★★★

Here is an example of the pupil outstripping the master, in terms of performance and recording quality. The recording was made at Abbey Road Studios, and the 5.1 surround-sound SACD track is absolutely stunning. Anyone wanting to experience the virtues of this format should audition Currie’s disc where what he calls Reich’s “perfect musical beehive” can be heard buzzing, bouncing and dancing around the listener. Producer Ian Dearden and engineer Daniel Halford definitely deserve awards. The work is for violin, cello, two clarinets, two pianos, percussion and singers and was premiered in 1976. Reich recorded it in 1978 (he played piano and marimba) and it’s been the yardstick for all subsequent recordings – here surpassed by percussionist Colin Currie who is now the leading performer of Reich’s music. The music requires much doubling by the players (including vocalizing) but Currie’s team – including the CBSO’s percussion section leader Adrian Spillett – never sound fazed or harried. Even minimalist sceptics should try this.

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