Those readers who follow regularly will know that I’m a big fan of surround sound, not just for theatrical blockbuster movies, but for music, too. When surround first came out it was often used to exaggerate direction by placing instrumental choirs and soloists in the rear channels when the music didn’t call for it. But there are a number of compositions that do require instrumentalists in locations other than the front. These include the Berlioz Requiem, with its four brass choirs placed in the corners of the church or Leonard Bernstein’s Mass. Surround is indispensable to these compositions if they are to be heard correctly.
Now here comes Naxos with a Blu-ray collection of contemporary wind band pieces that all use surround to encompass an audience and heighten its listening experience. Steven Bryant’s Concerto for Wind Ensemble has three concertino groups surrounding the audience; Joel Puckett’s Shadow of Serius – Concerto for Flute with Winds and Percussion, places very effective echo flutes all around the listening area; and John Mackey’s Kingfishers Catch Fire adds brilliant trumpet fanfares in the rear to the finale. The playing of the University of Texas Wind Ensemble under the direction of Jerry Junkin is all first rate and not only is the recording surround, it is also HD, recorded and delivered at 24 bits/96kHZ. It’s not always an easy listen (I welcomed the familiar jazz patterns in the 3rd movement of the Bryant composition) but always an exhilarating one.
Peruvian born Miguel Harth-Bedoya has been Music Director of the Fort Worth Symphony for 15 years. He is also Chief Conductor of the Norwegian Radio Orchestra. It seems a natural turn of events that he has performed and recorded in Norway a quartet of compositions by fellow contemporary Peruvian composer Jimmy Lopez. The works are Peru Negro, Lord of the Air (a cello concerto), Synesthesie, and America Salvaje. All are written in a bold
personal style that while showing some influence of folk music, really defies characterization. I believe that Synesthesie is the most accessible, a composition comprised of five movements of similar length named after the five senses. This succinct work is quite impressive and clearly show’s the composer’s mastery of colorful orchestration.
A companion disc puts us back on more familiar ground as Ukrainian pianist Vadym Kholodenko, winner of the 2013 Van Cliburn competition, plays the Grieg Piano Concerto and the Saint-Saens Second Piano Concerto with Harth -Bedoya and the Radio Orchestra. There are already half a dozen good recordings of each composition in the catalog, but Kholodenko brings sensitive, controlled virtuoso playing to every passage and the smaller forces of the Norwegian Radio Orchestra achieve a transparency that other performances miss. I’d put Kholodenko neat the top of the list.
The Grieg is played with precision, sincerity, and lyrical grandeur, the Saint-Saens with playfulness, drive, and virtuosity. The sparkling, rapid final movement of the Saint-Saens left me thrilled and near breathless yet it never seemed bombastic or merely a note perfect exercise. The recorded sound on both the concerto album and the Lopez album is exemplary of well balanced warmth and transparency, in short, ideal. Kholodenko and Harth-Bedoya are recording the complete Profkofiev piano concertos with the Fort Worth Symphony, also to be released on Harmonia-Mundi. I’ll be eagerly awaiting them.
When we think of Mozart or Haydn, we’re likely to initially focus on one of their more serious works, perhaps the Requiem for Mozart and The Creation for Haydn. But both composers wrote a lot of music that’s simply fun to play and fun to listen to and this charming CD from Hyperion presents three such offerings. From Mozart it’s the concerto for bassoon and the concerto for oboe, written earlier in the composer’s career. For Haydn, it’s the Sinfonia Concertante in B Flat for violin, cello, oboe, bassoon, and orchestra, written during the composer’s later career, on one of his trips to London arranged by the impresario Johann Peter Salomon.
These are all wonderful works to hear when you need something happy. Highlights include the free and joyous spirit of the last movement of Mozart’s oboe concerto (later arranged for flute, by the way), the opening of the bassoon concerto with brilliant horns riding the wave of the orchestra, and the last movement of Haydn’s piece in which we find almost all of the master’s tricks of the trade – the hesitant, teasing opening, sudden modulations into another key, and a rude interruption form the full orchestra. It wasn’t just Haydn’s Symphony No. 94 that had the surprises, it was just about all of them! The period instrument performances by the chamber orchestra Arcangelo, conducted by Jonathan Cohen, fully realize the grace and humor of this music and all of the soloists are brilliant. The recorded sound is intimate yet fairly reverberant in a warming way. This was my first experience with Arcangelo and I surely hope it will not be my last. Bravo for bringing a hearty smile to summer!
I’ve been reviewing recordings for a long time so remember what are now classic recordings when they were new. The great ones gave me the instant feeling that I’d be hearing them around for many years to come. I recently got that electric feel from a new recording of the Dvorak violin concerto, played by Thomas Albertus Irnberger with the Prague Philharmonie conducted by Petr Altrichter on the Gramola label. The concerto was written just after the jubilant Slavonic Dances and shares some of the folk elements and all of the enthusiasm that went into their composition.
Irnberger plays with unrelenting propulsion resulting in the music always moving forward. There’s never a dead spot. So sure is his technique that he can do anything he wants with it, opting for explosive, precise spontaneity and joy. The first movement has heroic purpose, the second one romance, and the third, boundless energy and good spirits. The orchestra seems an extension of the soloist; this is no mere accompaniment, it’s a collaboration. Also on the disc are exuberant performances of the Romance for Violin and Orchestra and the Violin Sonatina in G, where Irnberger is partnered by first rate pianist, Pavel Kaspar. The format is a Hybrid SACD disc and the sound has wonderful, warm presence. I don’t intend to dump my recordings of the concerto by Edith Peinemann, Nathan Milstein, and Issac Stern, rather I will add this one to that list, which is where it belongs, near the top. Classics on Line list the release on MP3m where you can also listen to samples. Amazon.com has the disc.
Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos are among the composer’s most colorful and upbeat compositions and over the years just about everyone has had a go at them, not always with stellar results. I remember a near disastrous set with Charles Munch conducting the Boston Symphony where piano was used in the continuo rather than harpsichord. But more often, the results were splendid and we have a large number of excellent recordings, using both modern and authentic instruments. My favorite with modern instruments is Benjamin Britten conducting the English Chamber Orchestra. On period instruments, this new one by Florilegium on Channel Classics hybrid multichannel SACD goes at the top of the list. This set contains fleet performances that are at the same time scholarly informed and passionately performed. The layout is a little different than usual so as to go, on each disc, from simple instrumentation to most complex, thus disc 1 -concertos 6, 5, 4; disc 2-concertos 3, 2, 1. It works for me.
All of the Florilegium readings are breezy and bright – happy Bach, if you will. The harpsichord playing of Terence Charlston in the fifth concerto is virtuoso and musical; the trumpet playing of Richard Fomison is the same, and the horns in the first concerto are absolutely thrilling. It’s like taking the best parts of all the other period instrument performances and putting them on the same discs. The recorded sound has a lot to do with this set’s success. Not only are these the best period instrument performances, they are recorded in the best sound of any set. The CD layer is excellent, but the SACD is a marvel. The recordings were made in St. John the Evangelist Church in Norwood, England, which is apparently a rather reverberant structure. The two channel CD version mixes some of that sound back into the front to slightly muddy it, but the multichannel SACD layer keeps it in the surround channels so that the front channels are transparent and crystal clear. Warmth and clarity combined – a winner.