mon 20/11/2017

Classical CDs Weekly: Elgar, Alec Roth, Australian Brandenburg Orchestra | reviews, news & interviews

Classical CDs Weekly: Elgar, Alec Roth, Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

Classical CDs Weekly: Elgar, Alec Roth, Australian Brandenburg Orchestra

British music from an Anglo-Italian combo, contemporary string quartets and a sizzling Baroque disc from Sydney

Antonio Pappano and the Santa Cecilia OrchestraMusacchio&Ianniello

 

Elgar: Symphony No. 1, In the South Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia/Antonio Pappano(ICA Classics)

Antonio Pappano’s multi-national background might suggest that he’s the latest in a long line of foreign musicians to succeed with Elgar, though he’s actually British. He does a wonderful job with Elgar 1 in this live recording, though much of the credit rests with Rome’s Santa Cecilia orchestra – the strings’ heft and the weighty brass sonorities make most other performances sound distinctly anaemic. Not that Pappano goes crudely over the top; his unapologetically emotional yet intelligent take on one of the great 20th century symphonies makes for a thrilling listen. Elgar’s slow motto theme roars out with as much defiance and nobility, the first movement’s main section uncommonly exciting – again, largely thanks to sonorous lower strings and rasping brass. The scherzo flies by, leading to an impassioned, very Mahlerian Adagio. More revelatory is the finale, Pappano lending real meaning to Elgar’s more diffuse sequential passages. The audience erupt at the close, and rightly so.

My new favourite Elgar recording, in other words, made essential by a similarly full-blooded take on the overture In the South. Pappano relishes the music’s gaudier edges, occasionally making Elgar sound like Respighi. It’s those Roman brass again - the prominent horn blast two minutes in has never sounded more uninhibited. We get a delectable viola solo in the slow middle section, and the closing minutes are joyous. Live performances in the best possible sense, and a first choice library recommendation for both pieces. Close sound, but it's never distracting.

Alec Roth: String Quartets 2-4 Allegri Quartet (RTH Classical)

These three pieces inhabit the friendlier end of the contemporary string quartet continuum. Which is not to disparage them at all; Roth, better known as a choral composer, writes beautifully for strings. There’s a nice link to the Pappano disc reviewed above; Roth’s 4th Quartet is subtitled ‘On Malvern Hills’ and was commissioned by the music club founded by Elgar in 1903. Roth’s subtitle alludes to his composing the quartet during walks on said hills. Elgar famously spoke of music being in the air, there for the taking – Roth doing so by subtly alluding to him in the quartet. Semiquaver flurries briefly suggest the Introduction and Allegro, but the direct references are well hidden, other than a beguiling, long-limbed cello theme in Roth’s slow movement. And what an ending: a flurry of soft bird song against Roth’s affable theme, the whole thing abruptly dissolving into silence.

The two earlier quartets are as approachable; Roth’s pastoral take on minimalism unfailingly appealing. No. 2’s ticking pizzicati were inspired by a U A Fanthorpe poem, the prelude to a haunting, static slow movement. Roth seems happiest when he’s on the move: the quartet’s fourth section an effervescent dance. No. 3 recycles a setting of John Donne’s The Autumnal, heard here on solo viola before an unexpected, tango-like interlude. Again, the subdued ending is blissful, and you’re left marvelling at how well Roth juggles his disparate influences. Warmly recorded, and handsomely performed by this latest incarnation of the Allegri Quartet.

Brandenburg Celebrates Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, Brandenburg Choir/Paul Dyer (ABC Classics)

What might look like a lazy compilation disc from a team you’ve never heard of couldn’t be further from the truth. Released to mark the 25th anniversary of Sydney’s Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, this anthology is so much more than the sum of its parts. Using chamber scale forces needn’t result in any loss of grandeur or ambition: Paul Dyer’s combined forces open the disc with Handel’s Zadok the Priest, already among the most arresting things I’ve heard all year. The anthem’s sly introduction is marvellous here, the playing full of intent despite the quiet dynamic. Handel’s playful delaying of the big reveal has rarely sounded so effective, the choir’s joyous opening blast a gleeful rush of E numbers. There’s loads more. A Telemann concerto for flute, violin and strings gives the lie to any suggestion that this composer was a plodding hack; the last movement’s slow introduction containing some ear-stretching harmonies.

We get a Vivaldi cello concerto, zingily played by the orchestra’s Jamie Hey, and a sonorous concerto grosso by Geminiani. Brescianello’s E minor violin concerto contains a truly wondrous slow movement, the solo line floating over clipped string chords. A Brescianello chaconne oozes grace, and a surprise comes in the form of a contemporary work written for these players by Elena Kats-Chernin. A modern riff on Bach’s Magnificat, Prelude and Cube’s dialogue with the past is brilliantly accomplished. Bachian harmonies in the Prelude suddenly diffract and explode with colour. Soprano sax and baroque trumpet blast over the top. The Cube’s disparate lines compete for attention, but eventually coexist in peace.

Thrilling, affirmative music, and the most engaging, positive Bach tribute imaginable. Extraordinarily good, and a bold way to end the most invigorating baroque collection I’ve ever heard. Superb booklet too, the ‘what to listen for’ pointers explaining each piece with unpretentious enthusiasm.

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