Norman Stinchcombe reviews the latest classical CD releases

Offenbach, ‘La Princesse de Trébizonde’: Soloists, Opera Rara Chorus, London Philharmonic Orchestra / Daniel (Opera Rara 2 CDs) ★★★★★

This is the fourth Offenbach opera rescued from obscurity by the enterprising Opera Rara label – and it’s an absolute corker. When Dr Johnson called opera, “An exotic and irrational entertainment”, it was meant as a put down but for Offenbach it’s an artistic credo. He revels in the exotic, irrational and madcap, none more so than in this romp from 1869 which begins with a penurious circus troupe and their travelling waxworks and, via a winning lottery ticket, ends in a castle and a triumphant triple wedding. The largely Francophone cast are adept at both Offenbach’s music and the comic dialogue with conductor Paul Daniel ensuring a rattling pace – sample the third Act’s ‘Grand Galop’ – and on-their-toes playing from the LPO. It was recorded in Henry Wood Hall but the team created a theatrical feel, one can almost smell the greasepaint. The central plot pivot is Prince Raphaël – a trouser role for French mezzo-soprano Virginie Verrez – who falls in love with what he thinks is a waxwork of the titular Princess. Shades of Pygmalion. But it’s really the circus owner’s daughter Zanetta – Belgian soprano Anne-Catherine Gillet – in disguise. Cue confusion and comic capers. The ladies are in excellent voice and their ‘Grand Duo’ is a notable highlight. Baritone Chrisophe Gay and Canadian tenor Josh Lovell also shine as circus owner Cabriolo and the tyrannical father softened by love Prince Casimir. The excellent Opera Rara Chorus have their moment in the spotlight with a rousing ‘Huntsman’s Chorus’. As well as the complete Paris version of the opera there are also extracts from the earlier Baden-Baden version which were later cut. Presentation is sumptuous with full libretto, translation, essays and notes complete with contemporary illustrations.

Bruckner Symphony No.7: London Symphony Orchestra / Rattle (LSO Live CD & SACD) ★★★★★

Simon Rattle has championed the new critical performing edition of Bruckner’s symphonies by Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs in concert and in LSO Live recordings of the fourth, sixth and now the seventh symphonies. Cohrs offers conductors not a Haas or Novak style definitive edition but a,“fresh, open-minded perspective, granting performers more freedom and offering options.” Comparing this with Rattle’s 1997 CBSO recording of the seventh reveals no radical textual differences – the controversial cymbal and triangle outburst in the Adagio remains. What makes this new recording vastly superior is Rattle’s radical rethink of his approach. There is still weight and gravitas from the impressive LSO players but gone is the over-reverential sometimes somnolent pace of the earlier recording. Rattle’s tempi are faster in every movement, but never hectic or over-driven. The overall timings tell the story: 70.58 (CBSO) and 63.33 (LSO). There is some magnificent playing here too – the quartet of Wagner tubas sound heavenly.

Mozart: Norwegian Radio Symphony Orchestra / Popelka (LAWO Classics CD) ★★★

Mozart’s composition of his symphonies 39, 40 and 41 in six weeks must surely rank as one of the greatest cultural achievements; for their intrinsic quality and variety, with their individual characters and sound world. Up-and-coming Czech conductor Petr Popelka and the Norwegian Radio Symphony Orchestra, of which he is the chief conductor, give lively but not particularly memorable performances of the Symphony No.39 in E flat and No.40 in G minor. Speeds are swift and string articulation precise and light on vibrato. The famous opening of No.40 is a true Molto Allegro – fifty years ago conductors favoured a moderate tempo – and Menuettos in both symphonies have the right one-in-a-bar feel. Popelka is inconsistent with repeats omitting that in No 40’s sublime adagio unlike the masterly Mackerras set with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. The sound quality, 24 bit with an ultra-high sampling rate, is excellent.

Mahler Symphony No.1: Czech Philharmonic / Semyon Bychkov (Pentatone CD)★★★★★

Last October I gave a warm welcome to Bychkov’s recordings of Mahler’s fourth and fifth symphonies illuminated by the Czech Philharmonic’s playing. This is one of the few top orchestras in the world not to have succumbed to the prevailing homogenized international sound. Woodwind and brass have a pungent individual style, often using more vibrato than Anglo-American orchestras – something the Bohemian-born Mahler would have recognized. Like them this recording was made in Prague’s Rudolfinum and effortlessly captures the big dynamic swings between the intensely hushed opening – with magically distanced offstage trumpets – and the last movement’s opening brass and timpani eruption. There’s amiable drollery too in the bass-lead “Frère Jacques” variations colliding with an authentic-sounding klezmer band. Mahler designated the first movement’s tempo as “Langsam, schleppend” (Slow, dragging) but some will find Bychkov at 16.39 a little too slow – even more languorous than Bernstein. It still sounds beautiful though.

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