I shall meander this beautiful fall month, hoping to take you with me to Great Britain as I cover concerts and recordings that I particularly liked — no more important reason than that.
When last reporting on my musical adventures, I gave account of several concerts at the Royal Albert Hall in London in late July. I was fortunate enough to be back in Fair Albion at the beginning of October to hear the London Symphony Orchestra, under Colin Davis (now in his early 80s and still vigorous), play Mozart’s Symphony No. 34 and the Piano Concerto No. 20, with pianist Radu Lupu. This was my first live encounter with Lupu, whose highly poetic playing I fell in love with in the mid-1980s, due to his recording of Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos and the Schubert Fantasia for Piano Duet, D. 960 (with Murray Perahia).
At first, during the concerto, Lupu seemed to be playing from inside the orchestra instead of in front of it — not as one would expect a soloist to do. No doubt, my impression came from the quality of interiority at which Lupu aimed, and which he achieved. His subtle playing has a kind of purity to it, akin to childlike innocence, which is also frequently the essence of what Mozart is expressing, even when that innocence is burdened with the sadness of this world, as is the case in this D-minor concerto.
Davis relished the Mozart Symphony No. 34 with a leisurely style in which the singing lines were emphasized — almost as if the work were an instrumental opera. I vastly prefer Mozart played this way, of which I first grew fond through Josef Krips’s venerable recordings of later symphonies with the Concertgebouw Orchestra on Phillips (now available in a boxed Decca set). I highly recommend these recordings.
The second half of the program was the Carl Nielsen Fifth Symphony. Davis is, of course, a great Sibelius conductor. I think his first traversal of the seven Sibelius symphonies with the Boston Symphony Orchestra remains the finest of them all. Though I had never heard him in Nielsen, I was not surprised by his entirely gripping account of the Nielsen Fifth, which is, in certain respects, a reprise of Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony, the Inextinguishable. Some of its themes are variations of what is heard in the Fourth, and the storyline is familiar: the forces of life gently dawning; the forces of life getting tromped on by the anti-life forces; the forces of life fighting back and emerging triumphant.
Nielsen follows this scenario a couple of times in the two-part Fifth. The Inextinguishable is one of the greatest symphonic expressions of this theme, and the Fifth Symphony does not quite achieve the same stature. Nonetheless, it is a powerful and at times tumultuous work. The London Symphony Orchestra showed how great an orchestra it is by fully meeting the demands that Nielsen makes. The great fugal writing in the Presto and the gorgeous Andante in the second part of the symphony is staggeringly good, and the LSO strings excelled in playing it. But then, the timpani, WINDS, and brass also more than meet their parts. It was a thrill to hear orchestral playing at this level.
My teeth ached when I saw that Davis and the LSO were scheduled to play the Sibelius Fifth Symphony (the work that started my classical music rampage when I was 20 years old) later in the month. How I would love to have been there! My consolation prize is that I will hear the Fifth with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, under conductor Semyon Bychkov, on November 13. I shall report back.
While in London, I ventured a visit to the HMV store on Oxford Street (always a perilous occasion), resolving to behave myself, no mater what CD bargains were on offer. As usual, I succumbed. How could I resist an EMI bargain box of 37 Benjamin Britten CDs, The Masterpieces, for only £50? That is less than $2.25 per CD. Then there was Mariss Jansons’s set of the Shostakovich Symphonies with my name on it. I also bagged a Teldec Apex CD of the Piano Trios Nos. 2-4, by the early Soviet-era composer Nikolai Roslavets (1881-1944), a fascinating figure of the avant-garde period before Stalin clamped down. This was more expensive, but I rightly guessed that it is not available in the United States. With that, I fled to the Farm Street church to do penance for my profligacy.
I also had a chance to catch up with Martin Anderson, music critic extraordinaire and founder of the Toccata Classics label. Last year, I joined his Discovery Club to help support this worthy enterprise of recording neglected music and to get a discount on Toccata CDs (visit the site at www.toccataclssics.com). Anderson filled me in on his new releases.
What particularly caught my eyes and ears was Music for String Orchestra, by Philip Spratley. Who? I wondered. Anderson has a knack for discovering worthy unknowns, and his reputation has spread. Spratley’s immediately attractive, meditative music puts him well within the British genre of great string works by Holst, Finzi, Britten, Vaughan Williams, and others. The Sinfonietta, Op. 6, is really that fine, but so are the lovely Clarinet Concertino and the Recorder Concertino that accompany it (Toccata Classics TOCC 0088). What a wonderful thing Anderson has done for this fine composer, and for us. I was also delighted to see Volume One of the complete Mieczyslaw Weinberg songs (TOCC 0078), and was intrigued by Song of the Heart by Gareth Walters (TOCC 0090), but more on these and other Toccata offerings at a later time.
Keeping to the British theme, after having been so impressed by the symphonies of Richard Arnell on the Dutton label (see my columns from May and last December), I sought out the new recording of Arnell’s Violin Concerto in One Movement (Dutton CDKX 7221). The concerto is everything his dramatic, ecstatic symphonies led me to believe it would be, and it comes with two other treats: violin concertos by Thomas Pittfield and Guirne Creith. Violinist Lorraine McAslan gives impassioned performances, especially of the gorgeous unaccompanied cadenzas in the Arnell work. She also captures the gentle lyricism in the Pittfield concerto. Martin Yates and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra make this a very attractive offering for anyone interested in tonal 20th-century violin works. Arnell died last April at the age of 91. Fortunately, he lived to see his works revived.
The resuscitation of Arnell’s symphonic oeuvre has had me wondering if the British were holding anything else back from us. It seems they have been: Dutton has released a two-for-one CD packet of Arthur Butterworth’s Symphonies Nos. 1 and 4, with the Viola Concerto (CDLX 7212). The Fourth Symphony and the Viola Concerto are receiving their world-premiere recordings. How is it that this 86-year-old composer is only now getting a hearing? The answer may be in the conservative nature of these works and their admitted indebtedness to Sibelius and Vaughan Williams. Also, it appears that, once Butterworth found his voice, he did not change his style much. So what? Anyone who cares for music with a northern sound, or what Butterworth calls “a certain Nordic aura,” which his love of Scotland gave him, will find this greatly appealing. Like Sibelius, Butterworth focuses on the solitary majesty of nature, which he powerfully portrays in its grandeur and occasional outbursts of violence and terrible energy. When Butterworth marks music furioso, he means furioso. The fourth movement of the First Symphony is so designated — Vivacissimo e furioso — and it contains some of the most thrilling, dramatic storm music I have heard.
Though swaths of his music come out of Sibelius’s sound world (a feature I like, as you might imagine from my reference above to Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony), Butterworth has his own rugged voice. One can only hope that this release presages a complete recorded traversal of his symphonies, of which there are now five. Butterworth himself conducts the Fourth Symphony and the Viola Concerto, with the able Sarah-Jane Bradley, and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. The recording of the First Symphony is from the 1957 premiere with the Halle Orchestra, under the great Sir John Barbirolli, in very respectable mono sound. I should add that this set also features a 27-minute talk by Butterworth in 2008 on his upbringing and music that is completely charming. (Once you are captivated by the First Symphony, you should seek out the modern recording of it by Douglas Bostock, with the Munich Symphony Orchestra, on the Classico label. With the modern sonics, you can hear it in all its sometimes terrifying glory.)
I am also delighted by a new release on the Chandos label of the ballet music of Sir Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006), one of the true mercurial geniuses of British 20th-century music. Of the four featured ballets, only the popular Suite from “Homage to the Queen,” written for Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, is otherwise available. Conductor Rumon Gamba and the BBC Philharmonic have just the right handle on Arnold’s quirkiness to give us the broad range of styles contained in Rinaldo and Armida, Electra, and the Suite from Sweeny Todd. This CD (CHAN 10550) is a must for Arnold fans.
Speaking of Gamba, I must mention the three-CD compilation of the film music of Ralph Vaughan Williams that Chandos has just issued (CHAN 10529(3)), with Gamba conducting the BBC Philharmonic. Vaughan Williams was nearly 68 years old when he began scoring films, so we have here film music of the highest quality. These scores will also be of special interest to those who are curious about the cross pollination that occurred between some of them and his later symphonies — for instance, as suggested by the booklet inserts, the music for the Sinfonia Antarctica that came from Scott of the Antarctic, hints of the Sixth Symphony in the 49th Parallel, and of the Fifth in Coastal Command. In any case, these and the others — Bitter Springs, The Loves of Joanna Godden, The England of Elizabeth, and more — are all from the hands of a master. The recordings and performances are superb.
One cannot listen without exclaiming: Hail Britannia!