tue 31/05/2016

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

The Kansas City Symphony Orchestra on paradeChris Lee


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.


The Kansas City Symphony is

The Kansas City Symphony is based is Missouri, not Kansas. Agreed this is a fine recording, and I understand it will also be issued on SACD.

Apologies - will amend.

Apologies - will amend.

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