Norman Stinchcombe reviews the latest classical CD releases

Chopin & Rachmaninoff: Peter Donohoe (Somm Recordings CD) ★★★★★

Now in his 70th year pianist Peter Donohoe shows no sign of slowing down his recording career – praise be. After completing his excellent survey of Mozart’s piano sonatas for Somm his latest release combines two of his favourite composers, Chopin and Rachmaninoff – or is it Rachmaninov, the back cover uses both spellings. Rachmaninoff’s career was bookended by Chopin: he played the Piano Sonata No.2 in B-flat minor at his 1892 graduation recital and at his last public recital in 1943, six weeks before his death. The opening of the Marche funèbre is one piece of Chopin everyone can hum but Donohoe’s magisterial performance strips it of any hint of routine; the central episode is an oasis of calm and solace before a muscular and justifiably brutal return of the march theme. In the Piano Sonata No.3 in B minor Donohoe again ratchets up Chopin’s contrasting material, as in the Scherzo with its sinister shades-of-Scarbo theme framing a waltz which sounds spontaneously composed. Rachmaninoff’s 22-variation homage, the Variations on a Theme of Chopin, Op.22, completes an outstanding and generously-filled (81:35) disc.

Stravinsky: Ehnes, BBC Philharmonic / Davis (Chandos CD/SACD) ★★★★

Following their successful collaboration in the works of Berg, the team of Canadian violinist James Ehnes and conductor Sir Andrew Davis present another disc devoted to a concertand orchestral works by a twentieth century composer. In Stravinsky’s violin concerto comparing Ehnes to Baiba Skride (Orfeo) shows him using a fuller-bodied more romantic approach, especially in the two central Arias, with Skride edgier and slightly more astringent – but both are viable and finely-played interpretations. The disc’s other major work is one of Stravinsky’s most beautiful, the ballet ‘ Apollon Musagète’ with Davis and the BBC Philharmonic relishing the opportunity for some string-dominated lyricism. The fill-ups are minor pieces: two Suites for small orchestra, transcriptions of piano duets, and the ‘Scherzo à la Russe’ – a 1945 reworking of a piece originally composed for Paul Whiteman’s jazz band – which sounds a trifle stiff compared to Simon Rattle’s unbuttoned CBSO recording (EMI Classics).

Mascagni ‘Cavalliera Rusticana’: Soloists, Balthasar Neumann Choir & Orchestra / Hengelbrock ★★★★ (Prospero CD)

The novelty of this new recording is that it presents the original uncut score of Mascagni’s perennially popular slice of Sicilian “rustic chivalry”. For the 1890 premiere at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome, Mascagni was forced to make cuts after complaints from the performers during rehearsals. The Chorus found their parts too demanding and the singers performing Santuzza and Turiddu complained about excessively high notes. Mascagni slashed choral passages and changed the opera’s key structure and those cuts stayed after the opera’s phenomenal success. Under conductor Thomas Hengelbrock the cuts, roughly a tenth of the original score, are back and the excellent choir relish their extended role. Back also are the high notes for Santuzza – soprano Carolina López Moreno instead of the usual mezzo – and her lover Turiddu (Giorgio Berrugi) both are suitably fiery and passionate and have no trouble with the ringing top notes. An interesting new look at a venerable classic.

Strauss & Wagner: Behle, Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra / Thomas Rösner (Prospero CD) ★★★

Octogenarians will tell you that there was once a golden age when Wagner tenors were as numerous as cost-of-living increases are now. In truth they have always been in short supply and so sometimes recruited from unlikely sources: Siegfried Jerusalem was a bassoonist for ten years; Rene Kollo a jazz club drummer and pop singer; Peter Hofmann lead singer in a rock band. Daniel Behle studied trombone and composition before switching to singing. Now in his 50th year he’s reaping the rewards of slow but steady progress. He’s not a heldentenor, one clue being that Behle still regularly appears as a Mozart tenor but it’s smoothly produced (he sings Don Ottavio and Ferrando in the opera house) and the Wagner tracks here play to his lyrical strength and mellifluous line – from ‘Die Meistersinger’, ‘Lohengrin’ and ‘Tannhäuser’. The Richard Strauss selections are good too, the disc ending with a finely produced ‘Morgen’.

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