Norman Stinchcombe reviews the latest classical CD releases
George Walker:’Five Sinfonias’ National Symphony Orchestra / Noseda (NSO CD / SACD) ★★★★★
He published 90 musical works including four concertos, piano sonatas, string quartets, songs and a mass. As a concert pianist his repertoire included the second concertos of Rachmaninoff and Brahms. He was the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music. For Simon Rattle, he was simply, “by any measure a great composer.” So why have so few of us in Britain heard of George Walker? Walker, who died in 2018 aged 96, wrote eclectic music which doesn’t fit into easy categories like minimalism, jazz or avant-garde. This new disc is an excellent introduction to Walker’s world featuring five short Sinfonias, composed between 1984-2016 and lasting between ten and sixteen minutes. The first three are in two or three movements, No.4 ‘Strands’ and No.5 ‘Visions’ are single spans. The Washington-based orchestra, under Gianandrea Noseda, have the necessary power – try the explosive start of the louring No.4 – and subtlety to encompass Walker’s shifting and volatile musical moods. The recording, made live in Washington’s Kennedy Centre Concert Hall is exemplary in its range and realism, especially in SACD. Well worth exploring.
‘Corellimania’: Michaela Petri, Hille Perl, Mahan Esfahani (OUR Recordings CD / SACD) ★★★★
Despite the title there’s music by other masters of the baroque on this stimulating disc performed by three world-renowned virtuosos: Michaela Petri (recorder), Hille Perl (viola da gamba) and Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord). Arcangelo Corelli’s importance lies not just in his music but also his influence on other composers like Bach, Handel and Telemann, all three of whose works are included on a well-filled 75.46 minute disc. It’s book-ended by two Corelli compositions: the Sonata da Chiesa B minor op. 3 no. 4 and the Sonata op. 5 no. 12 G Minor ‘La Follia’ whose catchy melody has inspired many versions – including one by Salieri – this one for recorder and basso continuo is immensely lively and engaging. Other highlights are Bach’s ‘Fugue on a theme by Corelli’, Telemann’s trio sonata ‘Sonata Corellisante’ no. 2 A Major and Handel’s Suite for harpsichord B flat Major. The SACD recording quality, made in Garnisons Church, Copenhagen is brilliant.
Ethel Smyth ‘Der Wald’: Soloists, BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Andrews (Resonus Classics CD) ★★★★
Dame Ethel Smyth’s major works were composed more than a century ago but the flamboyant, fearsome cigar-smoking lesbian, feminist and suffragette would be more at home right now. In 1903 her ‘Der Wald’ (‘The Wood’) became the first opera composed by a woman to be staged at the Metropolitan Opera, New York – the next was 113 years later. This is the one-act opera’s first recording with a lot packed into its hour-long span: nature mysticism suffusing its primeval forest setting, a pair of Wagnerian doomed lovers and even a performing bear. John Andrews draws idiomatic playing from the orchestra and BBC Singers – saved from the spending cuts axe – are splendid as the chorus of forest spirits. It’s sung in Smyth’s own English version with fine performances from soprano Natalya Romaniw as the heroine Röschen, tenor Robert Murray as her lover Heinrich and mezzo Claire Barnett-Jones as the mysterious woman-of-the-woods Iolanthe.
‘Ocean Floor’: Witter-Johnson, LSO Percussion Ensemble (LSO Live CD) ★★★★
Ayanna Witter-Johnson is a musician who can be comfortably classified as unclassifiable. Composer, singer, and a talented if unconventional cellist – her dazzling vocal-and-cello performance of Sting’s ‘Roxanne’ on YouTube (performed at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam) will give newcomers a quick résumé of her style. She samples and fuses a number of genres and has composed works for the Kronos Quartet, the London Symphony Orchestra and rappers. Here she’s joined by the four-man LSO Percussion Ensemble, themselves adept in crossover and classical music. There are eight works here, two by composer Gwilym Simcock (who also plays piano), with Witter-Johnson’s own four-movement ‘Ocean Floor Suite’ as its centrepiece. In ‘Unconditionally’, for example, she combines her lyrical soul-singer’s voice, soaring and imploring, with bowed and pizzicato cello, also using it as a percussion instrument in the way a flamenco guitarist does. Not one for classical mainstream listeners – but the more adventurous will enjoy it.