Norman Stinchcombe reviews the latest classical CD releases

Duruflé & Poulenc: Choir of Trinity College Cambridge / Layton (Hyperion CD) ★★★★★

Duruflé’s Requiem Op.9 usually appears on disc as the bottom half of a double bill with Faure’s far more famous Requiem, with both in full orchestral guise. Not so here, where Duruflé gets sole billing with a very different setting of his choral masterpiece. He composed three versions of the work: for full orchestra (1947); small orchestra (1961); and this much sparser and starker 1948 setting for choir and organ, splendidly played here by Harrison Cole. The recording, made at the Church of Saint-Eustache in Paris, is phenomenal, a triumph for engineers David Hinnitt and Adrian Peacock who allow us to hear every strand of the young Choir’s impressive work under Stephen Layton, from the hushed ethereal ‘In Paradisum’ to the thrilling climax of the ‘Sanctus’. Cole is always on hand to add a telling touch of colour or underpinning the triple forte climax of the ‘Dies Irae’ with appropriate power. Two soloists from the choir are used to good effect: baritone Florian Störtz (‘Domine Jesu Christe’ and ‘Libera Me’) and mezzo Katherine Gregory (‘Pie Jesu’).The disc is completed by Poulenc’s ‘Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence’. Written after the death of a friend and with World War II approaching, they are solemn, anguished and emotionally spiky, performed by the Choir with a restraint which makes them more implacable.

Tchaikovsky: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Chauhan (Chandos CD & SACD) ★★★

This is the second volume of Birmingham conductor Alpesh Chauhan’s survey of Tchaikovsky’s tone poems and incidental music. The high playing standards of the BBC SSO, of which Chauhan is Associate Conductor, are maintained as is the impressive Chandos engineering which gives the recording a wide dynamic range. Here though the survey is largely from the lesser known bye-ways of the composer’s work starring with the least impressive work ‘Fatum’ (‘Fate’. It was dedicated to Balakirev who conducted the second performance, hated it and told Tchaikovsky so. The sensitive composer destroyed the manuscript and the reconstruction heard here was made posthumously. He recycled the work's lyrical theme for his opera ‘ The Oprichnik’, the lively folk dances of which are included here. ‘Hamlet’ broods menacingly but is no match for ‘Romeo and Juliet’. The incidental music for Ostrovsky’s play ‘The Snow Maiden Maiden’ is very pleasant but only the ‘Capriccio italien’, given a big-hearted swaggering performance under Chauhan, is from Tchaikovsky’s top drawer.

Brahms String Quartets: Quatour Agate (Le Label 2 CDs) ★★★★★

Brahms’ three string quartets live in the shadow of his more popular chamber works but there are riches here and the Quatuor Agate reveal them in this new recording. Their dedication to Brahms – the first composer the quartet played together – is embodied in their name. It’s a reference to Agathe von Siebold, to whom the young composer was briefly engaged, and in his G major string sextet Op 36 encoded a musical reference to her first nameTheir playing has the elegance and suavity expected from French players but the Agate were trained in Berlin and that’s revealed in their approach to the Quartets. Thomas Deschamps (second violin) remarks on Brahms “richness of voices” in the quartets and that’s apparent in Op.51 No.1 in C minor which is an object lesson of Goethe’s definition of the quartet form as “listening to four rational people conversing among themselves” – but here not only rational, but passionate, affectionate, even angry on occasion. As a lover of the cello I was fascinated following Simon Jachemet’s warm and exquisitely intoned contribution. The recording, made in using the excellent acoustics of the Theatre Auditorium of Poitiers, is the perfect combination of clarity and airiness so that instrumental interplay – the delightful quasi-minuet of Op.51 No.2 in A minor for example – is transparent. The Op.67 in B-flat Major is Brahms at his relaxed ebullient best and the Agate players make it irresistibly infectious. There’s a delicious bonus played as an encore; an arrangement by first violinist Adrien Jurkovic of the Romance in F major, the fifth of Brahms’ Klavierstücke, Op.118.

Smetana: Czech Philharmonic Orchestra / Bychkov (Pentatone CD) ★★★★

Bedřich Smetana was born 200 years ago this month and this lusciously played new recording of his symphonic masterpiece is a fitting birthday tribute. ‘Má vlast’ (My Homeland) is far more than the sum of its parts – six connected tone poems – it's a musical monument to Czech history and the country’s independence. The Czech Philharmonic have this music in their heart and at their fingertips and Semyon Bychkov,chief conductor and music director, ensures that every vital detail and nuance is heard. There’s an epic sweep to the well-known portrait of the river Vltava as it surges through the land and the wide-ranging sumptuous recording brings the swaying trees and breezes of ‘From Bohemia’s Woods and Fields’ into the listening room. Bychkov and the players obviously love the score – perhaps a little too much. This is the slowest recording on disc by a fair margin and it lacks the dynamism that Belohlavek and Kubelik bring to the score while conducting the same orchestra.

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