Norman Stinchcombe reviews the latest classical CD releases

Delius ‘A Mass of Life’: Soloists, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir / Elder (Lawo Classics 2 CDs) ★★★★

For the majority of music lovers for whom Delius is the master of fey miniatures about sunrises, summer evenings, cuckoos and walks by the river, this 90 minute mass – sung in its original German as ‘Eine Messe des Lebens’ – will come as a shock. Its huge forces of four soloists, three choirs and orchestra are a setting of texts from Nietzsche’s ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’. It was premiered in 1909 in London and has been served well on disc with recordings by Beecham, Groves, Del Mar and Hickox. This new one is perhaps the finest and in sonic terms an easy winner – the explosive opening pins the listener to their seat and the recording captures the work’s huge dynamic swings and Wagnerian fervour. Roderick Williams is outstanding in the important baritone solo part with strong support from Gemma Summerfield, Claudia Huckle and Bror Magnus Tødenes. Sir Mark Elder has a strong grip on proceedings eliciting fine playing from the Bergen forces and the Edvard Grieg Kor and Collegium Musicum Choir.

Shostakovich: Andrey Gugnin (piano) (Hyperion Records CD) ★★★★

Having recently heard Rachmaninov’s 24 Preludes in recital and found them lacking variety it was cheering to hear Shostakovich’s set from 1932-3 which are performed brilliantly by Russian pianist Andrey Gugnin. He’s in dazzling form here etching these miniatures – lasting from 38 seconds to 3.02 minutes – with distinct characters and vibrant colours. Shostakovich’s zany humour is frequently on show: the madcap No.11, No. 24’s grotesque polka, and No.4’s solemn Bach tribute undercut with the odd nod and wink. The teenage sonata No.1 shows the composer flexing his compositional muscles, Gugnin trenchant and powerful, while the epic wartime Sonata No.2’s, solemnity – dedicated to the memory of Shostakovich’s teacher Leonid Nikolayev – is dignified and moving in Gugnin’s hands. The pretty little ‘Nocturne’ from the ballet ‘The Limpid Stream’ rounds off an impressive disc.

Elgar: London Symphony Orchestra / Davis (LSO Live 4 CDs) ★★★★

Sir Colin Davis’s live 2001 recordings of Elgar’s Symphonies 1, 2 and 3 were greeted with great acclaim on their release, as was the coupling of the ‘Enigma’ Variations and ‘Introduction and Allegro for Strings’ which followed in 2007. There were two drawbacks to those original releases: their short measure and the close, constricted sound. Both problems have been solved with this bargain-price box set. With the addition of the LSO’s 1988 studio-condition Walthamstow Town Hall recordings of Elgar’s Cello Concerto (Felix Schmitt soloist conducted by Raphael Frühbeck de Burgos); Barry Tuckwell’s lively set of four Marches; and Sir Antonio Pappano’s 2020 Barbican performance of Vaughan Williams’ ‘Tallis’ Fantasia, each disc lasts between 71 and 78 minutes. Jonathan Stokes’ remastering has improved bass and treble levels for a much improved listening experience. Davis’s approach to Elgar, noble and monumental with very broad tempi won’t suit all tastes. If the fiery fleet-footed style of Elgar’s own recordings, with the advantage of modern sound, is preferred then Solti’s 1970s Decca recordings with London Philharmonic are the ones to go for.

Napoli!’: Ophélie Gaillard / Pulcinella Orchestra (Aparte 2 CDs) ★★★★

Last year the French cellist’s ‘A Night in London’ replaced a conventional programme with a themed album exploring the city’s 18th century musical scene across genres. Now she’s time-travelled to Italy with even greater success encompassing familiar composers, a beautifully-played Alessandro Scarlatti Cello Sonata No.1, to rarities like Lanzetti’s Sonata No.7 and the Sonata No.1 by the impressively-named Alborea detto Francishcello. She directs her lively original instrument orchestra from the cello in concertos by Fiorenza, Leo and Durante. Naples also had a rich heritage for dance, song and opera and Gaillard is joined by Sandrine Piau (soprano), Marina Viotti (mezzo-soprano) and Luan Góes (counter-tenor) singing works by Sarro, Bonno, Corselli and Porpora. There’s a wide spectrum from popular and learned, sacred and secular all delivered with engaging vitality and flair. There are always surprises – like characters from the commedia dell’arte making guest appearances in Barbella’s cello sonata – in this joyful set.

Weelkles: Resurgam, The English Cornett & Sackbutt Ensemble / Duley (Resonus Classics CD) ★★★★

In his anniversary year the English composer Thomas Weelkes (1576-1623) should have his profile raised by this collection of anthems, services and instrumental music entitled ‘Gentleman Extraordinary’. He was made organist at Winchester College in 1598 and later moved to Chichester Cathedral. Weelkes became known for the brilliance of his madrigals, with their daring chromaticism and organ counterpoint, but his musical success was often overshadowed by his run-ins with authority – in 1616 he was reported to the Bishop for being, "noted and famed for a comon drunckard (sic) and notorious swearer & blasphemer". Bad boy he may have been but this excellent disc extols what really matters, the music. Mark Daley directs excellent performances including anthems and three versions of the ‘Magnificat’ and ‘Nunc dimittis’ with vocal group Resurgam and Silas Wollston (organ). Try the stately elegance of the second track ‘Pavan No.1. Mr Weelkes his Lachrymae’ for a sample of the composer’s skill.

Alfano: Anna Pirozzi & Emma Abbate (Resonus Classics CD) ★★★★

While his 1936 opera ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’ has been revived occasionally, as a vanity project for star tenors like Domingo and Alagna, the Italian composer Franco Alfano is best remembered as the man with the ungrateful task of completing the final few minutes of Puccini’s unfinished ‘Turandot’. Even that was hacked by the irascible conductor Toscanini. It was a pleasant surprise then to find so much to enjoy in this collection of Alfano’s songs. The Italian dramatic soprano Anna Pirozzi has a big voice but hones it down and uses it subtly and affectionately and is well supported by Emma Abbate in the songs’ often challenging piano parts which testify to Alfano’s own pianism. The songs (many of them premiere recordings) range from the student work Op.1 ‘Cinque melodies’ – in French and admired by Massenet) –  to the ‘Due liriche per canto’ of 1949, four years before his death. Here, and in ‘Giono’, Pirozzi and Abbate are joined by cellist Bozidar Vukotic.

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