fri 19/07/2024

Classical CDs Weekly: Bach, Bruckner, Schoenberg, Schubert | reviews, news & interviews

Classical CDs Weekly: Bach, Bruckner, Schoenberg, Schubert

Classical CDs Weekly: Bach, Bruckner, Schoenberg, Schubert

Bracing baroque violin concertos, a boisterous Austrian symphony and two Viennese works for strings

Jaap van Zweden conducts BrucknerMarco Borggreve


Bach: Double and Triple Concertos Rachel Podger (violin), Brecon Baroque (Channel Classics)

This is the most effervescent, zingy Bach Double Concerto I’ve heard. Close your eyes, don a pair of headphones, and listen to Rachel Podger and Bojan Čičić sparring with effortless, conversational fluency. As with all good period performances, there’s the sense of muddy varnish being stripped away. It’s always a joy when a performance of a familiar work finds new things to say. Buy this disc for the Double Concerto’s slow movement. The solo playing is predictably wondrous. Like me, you’ll be bowled over by Marcin Świątkiewicz’s harpsichord continuo, sending harp-like ripples through Brecon Baroque’s lean, vibrant textures – such a rare pleasure to hear this instrument so well recorded. Świątkiewicz is terrific too in the Triple Concerto; wise, authoritative and firmly grounded, while on top Podger and flautist Katy Bircher skitter around like naughty children.

The C minor concerto for oboe and violin is another success; Alexandra Bellamy’s oboe playing alternating between seductive liquidity and trumpety brilliance. And there’s an exuberant account of the Concerto for Three Violins, originally composed for three harpsichords, with Johannes Pramsohler joining Podger and Čičić. A life-enhancing disc, infused with terpsichorean joie de vivre. Nippy accompaniments too, from Podger’s own hand-picked chamber orchestra.

Bruckner: Symphony no 6 Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, Jaap van Zweden (Challenge Classics)

Bruckner for sceptics; no 6 is the only one of his mature symphonies that doesn’t open with an amorphous fug of non-sound. This one kicks off with a clearly defined rhythmic ostinato and gets into its stride within seconds. The melodies are as stark and bold as ever, but there’s a refreshing boldness and cheeriness about the piece – presumably in part due to the bright A major tonality. Jaap van Zweden paces the opening Majestoso beautifully, every transition handled deftly to avoid any sense of clunkiness. Novices need to sample the movement’s glorious coda, a succession of improbable modulations held together with taut rhythmic control and immaculate brass solos.

Van Zweden’s Netherlands Radio Philharmonic play exceptionally well; the massive brass eruptions never overwhelm and bass lines are cleanly defined. Listen to this disc several times and you’ll fall in love with this symphony. The horns in the Scherzo’s trio are magnificent, and the symphony’s concise, jubilant peroration blazes. Curious that Challenge Classics have chosen such a dour cover shot of Jaap van Zweden, the conductor bleakly gazing into the distance as if he’s abandoned all hope.

Schubert: String Quintet, Schoenberg: Verklärte Nacht Janine Jansen, Boris Brovtsyn (violin), Amihai Grosz, Maxim Rysanov (viola), Torleif Thedéen, Jens Peter Maintz (cello) (Decca)

A disc to make the uninitiated fall in love with Schoenberg; a big-hearted performance of the original sextet version of Verklärte Nacht which manages to combine intense refinement with unabashed emotion. This is a piece which can make the unwary listener feel queasy. After 15 minutes of fin de siècle angst, endless unresolved cadences and tortuous chromatics, there’s a dazzling, shocking shift into bright D major. Which coincides with a pivotal moment in the Richard Dehmel poem which inspired Schoenberg to compose the work. Janine Jansen’s sextet manage the transition effortlessly, giving us a radiance which never tips over into treacly gloop. Remarkable music, even more so when you learn that it was written by a self-taught 25 year old. Schoenberg’s style was to change radically in subsequent years, and when listening to Verklärte Nacht you can understand why; it already sounds like a summation, an end point.

A good idea to couple the Schoenberg with Schubert’s vast C major String Quintet; another iconic Viennese work. It receives another compelling performance, and the massive scale barely registers. There’s a melancholy edge to so much of this music; only Schubert could write major key music which sounds so fragile. Jansen’s expansive Adagio is superb, as is a Scherzo which prefigures Bruckner. Best is the final movement, the second subject’s offbeat cello accompaniment delectably pointed. Is this the greatest piece of chamber music ever written? Throughout, there’s never the impression of a star soloist dutifully accompanied by subservient minions; understandable when you read that both works were recorded after a series of live performances. Wonderful, rich recording too.

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