Classical CDs Weekly: Beethoven, Stravinsky, Tallis

Laurent Becotruiz


Beethoven/Liszt: Complete Symphonies Yury Martynov (Erard, 1837 and Blüthner, 1867) (Alpha Classics)

These performances were recorded between 2011 and 2015 and originally released as single discs. If you missed them first time round, snap up this slimline box now. I'd hitherto failed to realise just how extraordinary Liszt’s Beethoven symphony transcriptions can sound, much of the fun coming from hearing what Liszt strips away and what he decides to highlight. You're continually struck by Beethoven’s harmonic boldness. And, having just one musician allows for thrilling rhythmic flexibility, Yury Martynov frequently sounding as if he's improvising these works on the hoof. No 1’s finale is a case in point, the quizzical prelude yielding to an exuberant romp, his 1837 Erard instrument just about holding up. It's impossible not to grin. The same piano is used for Symphonies 2, 6 and 7. No 6’s storm sequence is more vivid than many an orchestral performance I've sat through, and 7’s opening movement bucks like a bronco. The same work’s “Andante cantabile con moto” is impossibly grandiose, in a good way.

The remaining symphonies are played on a warm-toned 1867 Blüthner. Martynov’s superbly erudite sleeve note convincingly argues that playing pieces like Symphony No 5 on a well-behaved modern grand misses the point, overemphasising Beethoven’s classicism. Here, we get an explosion of craggy, romantic magnificence, the finale’s pounding C major chords never outstaying their welcome. No 9, the one symphony I struggle with, sounds infinitely more palatable in downsized form, and the pick of the set is Martynov’s No 4, an impetuous, joyous blast. An extraordinary, uplifting achievement, beautifully recorded and handsomely packaged. Buy it today. 

Stravinsky: Chant Funèbre, Le Sacre du Printemps Lucerne Festival Orchestra/Riccardo Chailly (Decca)

Stravinsky described his 1908 Chant Funèbre as “the best of my works before The Firebird”, a statement unverifiable until now. The piece vanished after its 1909 premiere, the orchestral parts resurfacing early in 2015 during refurbishment of the St Petersburg Conservatoire’s library. From the find a score could be reconstructed. The first modern performance was given under Gergiev in late 2016. It's a brilliant story, so involving that you wonder whether the piece can live up to the hype. A memorial to Stravinsky's teacher Rimsky-Korsakov, it’s a delicious fin-de-siècle wallow, suggesting Wagner and the Schoenberg of Gurrelieder along with The Firebird. Most startling is the close, the disquieting sequence of chords hinting, coincidentally, at a famous orchestral passage near the end of Britten's Billy Budd. But the earlier Feux d’artifice and Scherzo fantastique are musically more striking and individual. They're included on this handsomely performed anthology too, along with the Tchaikovskian song sequence La Faune et la Bergère, sweetly sung by mezzo Sophie Koch.

Riccardo Chailly's Lucerne Festival Orchestral provide a suitably well-upholstered backdrop. Maybe a little too refulgent for Stravinsky’s Le Sacre. Chailly's earlier Decca recording with the Cleveland Orchestra remains a reference: a viscerally exciting reading with a seismic kick. This one takes longer to warm up: “Les Augures printaniers” is too weighty, the orchestral playing restrained and over-reverent. But there's a superb “Danse de la terre” before the glacial introduction to Part II. Chailly turns the screws imperceptibly but surely, and his swift “Danse sacrale” is a knockout.

Thomas Tallis: Queen Katherine Parr & Songs of Reformation Alamire/David Skinner, with Fretwork (Obsidian)

Henry VIII’s military campaigns needed spiritual assistance. In times of war, pestilence and national disaster, a king could summon Processional Litanies, whereby the population would collectively pray for the success of the war effort. Concerns were raised in 1544 that the conventional Latin texts were too wordy and complicated, so snappier English translations were prepared. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer hoped that his versions, “in the vulgar tunge,” would be a help in “styrring the people to more deuotion”. Henry’s sixth wife Katharine Parr also prepared a series of Psalms or Prayers. Thomas Tallis was commissioned to produce a five-part vocal setting of Cranmer’s English Litany, and it's included here: an exhaustively long but refreshingly upbeat sequence of sonorous musical prayers. It should consumed along with Se lord and behold, a recently rediscovered version of Tallis’s sublime Gaude gloriosa dei mater setting part of Parr’s texts. Listening to them side by side is fascinating, largely because the original's devotional Latin words are in such stark opposition to Parr’s, with their cries of “Let the wicked sinners retorne in to hell… and be taken in the pit whiche they have diggide”.

Performances of the major works, from David Skinner’s choir Alamire, are a joy; their flawless intonation and clear diction make recourse to the English texts largely unnecessary. A selection of shorter Tallis sacred works is included, and as a bonus we get four short pieces for viols, warmly played by Fretwork. Sumptuously recorded and lovingly annotated: a musically and historically fascinating disc.