Classical CDs Weekly: Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Szymanowski, Wolf-Ferrari | Classical music reviews, news & interviews
Classical CDs Weekly: Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Szymanowski, Wolf-Ferrari
British orchestral music in glowing sound, Polish symphonies and a seldom-heard violin concerto
Elgar: Enigma Variations, Vaughan Williams: The Wasps, Fantasia on Greensleeves Kansas City Symphony/Michael Stern (Reference Recordings)
Listen to the tiny second Entracte from Vaughan Williams’s Wasps suite and you’re amazed at how such a beguiling, intoxicating piece could have remained so little known, and at how French the music sounds. Unsurprisingly, it was written after Vaughan Williams had briefly studied with Ravel. The lightness and delicacy are extraordinary, and Vaughan Williams’s typically modal chord progressions sound more Gallic than usual. Delicious stuff, following a reading of the better-known overture which ticks every box – perfectly-judged tempi allow every strand of counterpoint to register, and transparent textures let ripe horn and wind solos sing out. This is an exceptional disc in so many ways. The Kansas City orchestral playing is flamboyant, assured, but always affectionate, and the recorded sound is possibly the most realistic I’ve come across.
The engineering really does serve the music, lending additional colour and warmth to Michael Stern’s Enigma Variations. His reading is full of character, managing to make the piece seem far more than a string of miniatures. You can feel the work grow – the theme’s initial statement slightly aloof and diffident, the heat slowly rising until Nimrod’s Brucknerian swell provides glorious release. Stern finds the necessary mystery in the penultimate variation, and the Finale’s cockiness is lovable rather than arrogant. The organ entry will induce goose pimples. Praising this CD for its outstanding technical qualities shouldn’t detract from some remarkable musical ones too. This is already in my end-of-year Top 10 list.
Szymanowski: Symphonies 1 & 2 London Symphony Orchestra/Valery Gergiev (LSO Live)
Szymanowski’s first two symphonies aren’t as distinctive as the two later ones, but there’s much to enjoy here. No 1 dates from 1906-7 and only the outer movements were completed; the composer withdrew the piece after its first performance. What survives are 18 minutes of glowering late-romantic noir; a parade of superheated gestures which are never particularly memorable but have a powerful cumulative effect. It can’t be easy to play, and Valery Gergiev’s LSO sound is technically brilliant, if a little cool emotionally. You can’t help thinking that the analytical dryness of the Barbican doesn’t flatter Szymanowski’s rich orchestral palate. If these players had been in taped in a swimmy church acoustic, the results might have been even more beguiling.
The Second Symphony is a more confident, emotionally stable piece, its structural quirkiness boldly displayed. Szymanowski’s unconventional opening movement is paired with an elaborate sequence of variations leading to a flamboyant, chromatic coda. The fugue’s final stages are exhausting, making the rudely assertive closing gesture come as a relief. LSO leader Roman Simovic’s solos are fantastic, especially in the work’s opening minutes, and the crepuscular beginning of the second movement is suitably murky. Fascinating, if uneven music – one hopes that Gergiev’s Barbican performances of Symphonies 3 and 4 will be released soon.
Subscribe to theartsdesk.com
Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £2.95 per month or £25 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.
To take an annual subscription now simply click here.
And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?
more Classical music
Music and image meet through Musorgsky and Janáček, with unpredictably successful results
A popular symphony, guitar music from Argentina and choral delights from the holiest of minimalists
Two playful Ballets Russes scores outdance the UK premiere of an elephantine concerto
A detailed and engaging portrait of the iconic composer
Vibrant string quartets, an upbeat Mass setting and late music from a 20th-century British composer
A compelling duo runs the gamut from Schumann to Adams
What's it like to listen to umpteen recordings of one work? Heaven, says a Radio 3 regular
Futility and magic in Julian Anderson’s new work, and not enough joy from Ravel
Anniversary Mendelssohn and Beethoven under the fiery leadership of resident Russian
Two discs of romantic orchestral music, and a 20th-century ballet gets a makeover. Twice.
An absorbing encounter with a late masterpiece
Birthday gala celebrates a long and fruitful collaboration