Norman Stinchcombe reviews the latest classical CD releases

Debussy & Strauss: Stagg, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra / Martin (MSO CD / SACD) ★★★★

Debussy’s song cycle ‘Ariettes oubliées’ (‘Forgotten Songs’) is aptly named since it is so seldom heard. Debussy composed the settings of six poems by Paul Verlaine for soprano and piano when in his twenties. This orchestral version by Australian composer Brett Dean, premiered in 2023, is a real find. Siobhan Stagg has the clear diction Debussy demanded combined with the requisite imagination to bring to life Verlaine’s sensual image-rich poetry. She captures the opening song’s sultry “l'extase langoureuse” and “la fatigue amoureuse” while in ‘Il pleure dans mon cœur’ (‘Tears fall in my heart’) – which compares falling rain to falling tears – Brett’s orchestration entrances with the slowly-falling hypnotic raindrops. It’s not all languor though; ‘Chevaux de Bois’ (the ‘Wooden Horses’ of a fairground roundabout) gallops in with Stagg’s resounding cry of “Tournez, tournez’ (‘Turn, turn’). Fine playing from the MSO under their chief conductor Jaime Martin who also provides lush well-upholstered sound for Strauss’s valedictory masterpiece ‘Four Last Songs’ with luscious singing from Stagg who is very moving in the final song ‘Im Abendrot’, with it’s farewell to life.

Berlin Harpsichord Concertos: Philippe Grisvard, Ensemble Diderot / Pramsohler (Audax CD) ★★★

The Ensemble Diderot’s harpsichordist Philippe Grisvard made a brave decision when choosing the composers for this disc of works from the Berlin court of Frederick II of Prussia who reigned from 1740-1786. He does not include a single work by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach the composer who spent thirty years at the court (1738-68) and as a member of the court orchestra, clavier virtuoso and composer, dominated its musical life. Instead this selection aims at, “the rehabilitation and rediscovery of composers whose contribution to the concerto genre is no less important.” So we have four concertos by Nichelmann (D minor), C.H. Graun (D major), Schaffrath (C minor) and E.W Wolf (E-flat major). All four are enjoyable, with lively crisp accompaniment from the Ensemble Diderot under Johannes Pramsohler, with the Adagio of Wolf’s concerto particularly effective, but none have CPE Bach’s touch of genius and idiosyncratic flashes of invention.

The major multinational classical records labels concentrate exclusively on promoting a small collection of star performers and endlessly repackaging their extensive back catalogues. Bright, adventurous small independent labels are now the home for rare repertoire, new music and everything off the beaten track. One such is British-based Resonus Classics which has an interesting quartet of new CDs. Watkins: Leonore Piano Trio, Orchestra Nova / Vass ★★★★. The Welsh composer Huw Watkins is versatile, combining a career as a pianist while composing a wide range of music. This CD features five works composed between 2009 and 2022 and show Watkins’ versatility and his engaging tonal-with-a-twist style. The Leonore Piano Trio perform his three-movement Piano Trio No. 1 (2009) which has a memorably solemn and pensive central Lento while the four-section Piano Trio No 2 ends with a rousing presto climax. The Leonore trio are joined by Rachel Roberts (viola) for Watkins’ piano quartet (2012). In the Concertino for Violin and String Orchestra (2011) the Orchestra Nova, under George Vass, and soloist Benjamin Nabarro start with a bang but end with a comparative whisper. I found the Little Symphony for string orchestra (2013) a real charmer – unpretentious and affable. Beethoven: Rautio Piano Trio ★★★, this second volume in the Rautio survey of Beethoven’s piano trios features Piano Trio Op. 1 No. 3, the Op. 11 trio ‘Gassenhauer' and the Piano Trio in E-flat major, Op. 44 ‘Variations on an Original Theme’. They play on original instruments with Jan Rautio on a reproduction fortepiano based on an 1805 Walter. This suits these mostly youthful works, the early masterpiece Op. 1, No. 3 in C minor shows Beethoven in a favourite key, the Andante cantabile con Variazioni sparkling and well characterized with Rautio’s fortepiano lithe and dextrous in the Prestissimo finale. The other works are much slighter and I found the strings occasionally having an original instrument edge and whine. Skempton: Matthew Owens (organ) ★★★ Howard Skempton’s 50 Preludes and Fugues for Organ (2022-23) gets a magisterial performance from Matthew Owens the organs of St George’s Church, Hanover Square, and Merton College, Oxford. They are inspired by Bach’s ‘Well-Tempered Clavier’ with its 48 Preludes and Fugues, but at Owens’ suggestion Skempton added two more (25 & 50) based on the B-A-C-H musical signature. These musical miniatures demonstrate Skempton’s quirky and occasionally oddball style, pieces often ending in a peremptorily leaving the listener waiting for a resolution or flourish that never arrives. Poulenc, ‘Les œuvres de sa jeunesse’: Soloists, Manchester Camerata / Andrews ★★★. An interesting but wildly uneven collection of rarities and obscurities from the young musical joker. The ‘Trois mouvements perpétuels’, originally composed for piano, get a sparkling performance from the orchestra under John Andrews, as does the ‘Suite Française’ with its clever neoclassical dance music pastiche enlivened by Poulenc’s occasional orchestral hand grenades. The bizarre ‘Le Gendarme Incompris’ is an acquired taste with its arch humour and combination of verse recitation, singing and auto-erotic subtext. Not for me I’m afraid.

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