Norman Stinchcombe reviews the latest classical CD releases

Donizetti, ‘L’esule di Roma’: Soloists, Opera Rara Chorus, Britten Sinfonia / Carlo Rizzi (Opera Rara 2 CDs) ★★★★★

The creative team at Opera Rara are experts at mining gems from the archive of rarely-performed Donizetti operas – the 27th so far – and have unearthed another sparkling example here. The city in ‘L’esule di Roma (‘The Exile of Rome’) is Imperial Rome and the exile is Settimio the lover of Argelia. She is the daughter of Senator Murena whose unjust act plagues his conscience and ends in madness. The opera was premiered at La Scala Milan in 1828 but Murena’s psychological collapse in Act 2 prefigures Donizetti’s mad scenes in his 1830s operas, most famously the heroine’s in ‘Lucia di Lammermoor’. Murena is one of Donizetti’s great bass-baritone roles and Nicola Alaimo is splendid in voice – smoothly produced even under stress with no hectoring – and in portrayal of a decent man who has betrayed his values. Sergey Romanovsky (Settimio) is an ardent lover, mellifluous with a little touch of tenor steel, matched by the passionate and well-sung Argelia of Albina Shagimuratova. The smaller parts are taken by an excellent team of young singers, there’s admirable support from the Opera Rara Chorus and the Britten Sinfonia all marshalled with his usual expertise. and feel for the repertoire, by conductor Carlo Rizzi. The recording – made at Fairfield Hall, Croydon last year – has splendid body and presence. The luxury box set includes libretto. Translation, essays and cast photographs and biographies.

Michael Zev Gordon, ‘Diary Pieces’. Joseph Houston (piano) (Resonus Classics CD) ★★★

This disc consists of solo piano pieces which British composer Michael Zev Gordon (born in 1963) wrote as a form of musical diary between 2018 and 2022. The generously-timed 80 minute disc features 56 of them; the shortest lasting 21 seconds and the longest 3 minutes 12 seconds. Brevity is Zev’s modus operandi and eclecticism his credo: “from Bach to Brazilian jazz, Brahms to Jewish liturgical chant, French salon to folk song,” as he writes in the booklet notes. If that proclaims “postmodernism” Zev claims Schumann’s use of fragments, and interlinked reminiscences, as being nearer the mark. Many were written during the Covid lockdown and their poignancy is clear. British pianist Joseph Houston demonstrates great versatility – like an actor playing all the roles in a drama – and sensitivity in his playing. Not a disc for extended listening but enjoyable when sampled a year at a time.

Enrico Caruso ‘His Songs’: Mark Milhofer (tenor) Marco Scolastra (piano) (Urania 2 CDs)★★★

This set owes its existence to the enthusiasm and persistence of the Italian-trained English tenor Mark Milhofer, a fervent fan of Caruso. Trawling through libraries and collections at the British Museum, Caruso’s home near Florence and the Peabody Institute in America – where Caruso’s widow had donated his music collection – he discovered nine songs written by the man himself. These, together with 39 songs written for Caruso, make up this 90 minute recital release where Milhofer is accompanied by Marco Scolastra. It was recorded at Caruso’s Florence home – how’s that for authenticity? The Caruso compositions – he hummed a tune and his accompanist Richard Barthélemy did the rest – are pleasant but inconsequential such as the maudlin ‘Dreams of Long Ago’. Milhofer has a pleasant tenor and the songs – including old favourites like Leoncavallo’s ‘Mattinata’ – are ably presented but the style is (unsurprisingly) nothing like the great man’s. One for Caruso completists only.

Janacek, ‘Katya Kabanova’: Soloists, London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus / Rattle (LSO Live 2 CDs / SACDs) ★★★★★

Simon Rattle has always been an ardent conductor of Jancek’s music and has an immediate grasp for its idiosyncratic texture, the combination of romantic ardour with a spiky, biting sound palette. During his time with the CBSO there were performances and recordings of the ‘Glagolitic Mass’, ‘Sinfonietta’ and ‘Taras Bulba’ and he conducted the opera ‘The Cunning Little Vixen’ (in English) in 1991 at Covent Garden. His 2020 LSO Live recording (in Czech) was even better. Now from the same team comes ‘Katya Kabanova’ recorded live at the Barbican in January 2023. The romantic longing and potent erotic charge the opera carries was driven by Janacek’s unrequited passion Kamila Stösslová. He was 67, she was forty years younger and both were already married. He poured his thwarted desire into 700 letters and elevated her to the role of muse for three operas and the String Quartet No. 2 ‘Intimate Letters’. In ‘Katya Kabanova’ the lovers face insuperable social separation and Katya commits suicide by hurling herself into the Volga river. The whole cast are excellent but in Amanda Majeski (Katya) and Simon O’Neill (Katya’s lover Boris) Rattle had singers vastly experienced in their roles – having sung them at Covent Garden – who not only have the necessary vocal power but also the ability to make us sympathize with the characters’ plight. In this concert performance the LSO, in superb form, can be heard more clearly than in an opera pit and Rattle revels in the opportunity to highlight Janacek's orchestral details, without ever overwhelming the singers. The recording is closely-miked, powerful and revealing. The set comes with a libretto and translation.

Grieg: Soloists, Bergen Philharmonic / Edward Gardner (Chandos CD / SACD) ★★★

Grieg’s ‘Symphonic Dances’ are not his own original compositions but derived from Norwegian folk melodies but like a master craftsman setting a jewel, he gave them orchestrations to make them shine. They are all memorable and can be enjoyed at first hearing, There are lashings of colour from this fine orchestra and conductor Edward Gardener drives them along at a rhythmically incisive spanking pace. The ‘Funeral March’, written for Grieg’s friend the composer Rikard Nordraak, is an early work of no great depth but a dignified elegy. The disc is complete by two rarities neither of which I imagine will demand repeated listening. ‘Bergliot’ is a melodrama with speaker Juni Dahr narrating the role of the widow of Tambarskjelve, slain by Harald Hardrada, the Norse epic re-imagined by dramatist Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson. He also wrote ‘Before a Southern Convent’ with fine contributions from Mari Eriksmoen (soprano) and Astrid Nordstad (mezzo-soprano).

Beethoven: Soloists, Washington Chorus, National Symphony Orchestra / Noseda (5 CD / SACDs, 2 Blu Ray Audio discs, I Blu Ray Video disc) ★★★★

These days a new classical release has to come in multiple recording formats to satisfy the demands of buyers who listen at leisure using a variety of different equipment. This new set of Beethoven’s nine symphonies on the orchestra’s own label is comprehensive. The symphonies are available singly or complete as downloads or in this luxurious, but inexpensive, box set. Before discussing the sound, what about the performances? The Italian conductor Gianandrea Noseda, the NSO’s music director, sounds like a disciple of his countryman Toscanini. Energy, crispness of ensemble and speed are his musical trinity. Listen to the snap of the Allegros in the first two symphonies or the whiplash change of pace in the fourth symphony as the mysterious Adagio switches instantly to Allegro Vivace. Sometimes, as in the slow movement of the ‘Pastoral’, one would welcome some relaxation – Noseda leaves us no time “to stand and stare”. That energetic approach works well in the Scherzo of the Ninth where Beethoven’s rumbustious humour gets full play. The Ninth is the pick of performances here with excellent choral singing and a solid quartet of singers – Camilla Tilling (soprano), Kelley O’Connor (mezzo-soprano), Issachah Savage (tenor), Ryan McKinny (bass-baritone). There’s a bonus Blu Ray video disc which captures the live concert performance very well. Live recordings, with their close-miking to reduce audience and ambient noise, always mitigates the benefit of high resolution formats. The stereo SACD is vivid and reasonably wide-ranging but gains nothing in surround sound. The Blu Ray Audio discs boast stereo, 5 channel and Dolby Atmos. I found them disappointing. Listening to a nine speaker Atmos setup I heard none of the all-enveloping (“it’s like being there”) atmosphere that the best studio recordings offer. If stereo is enough for you then this set has much to offer with fine orchestral work under Noseda’s high octane approach.

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