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Classical CDs Weekly: Bartók, Tchaikovsky, Edwards, Sibelius, John Wilson | reviews, news & interviews

Classical CDs Weekly: Bartók, Tchaikovsky, Edwards, Sibelius, John Wilson

Classical CDs Weekly: Bartók, Tchaikovsky, Edwards, Sibelius, John Wilson

Two hefty discs of violin concertos and a collection of British light music

Adele Anthony shines in a contemporary Australian classicMarcia Siriello


Sokolov plays Bartok and TchaikovskyBartók: Violin Concerto No 2, Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto Valeriy Sokolov Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich/David Zinman (Virgin)

Bartók’s 1938 Violin Concerto No 2 seems to have garnered more respect than affection; it’s been overtaken in the 20th-century concerto popularity stakes by works by Shostakovich, Walton and Prokofiev. Which is such a shame, as it’s a glorious piece – one of those mature works where Bartók’s unique blend of folk music and Modernism find a perfect balance.

Structurally it’s satisfying, its large-scale opening movement effectively reprised in dance form in the finale, and an icily cool set of variations in the centre. None of which would mean anything if the musical material wasn’t alluring, and Bartók’s opening melody is a marvel, unwinding over softly strummed harp chords. It’s the slinkiest, most seductive concerto opening in the repertoire, and the music’s unfolding is followed by a sinuous second theme which is effectively a 12-note row – but which remains oddly memorable, almost catchy.

Valeriy Sokolov’s performance is technically fearless, gritty in places but soft-centred where it needs to be. Bartók needs advocacy like this, and anyone who’s new to the work should dive in.

Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto makes an unlikely companion piece; like the ice cream served after a first course of serious Bartókian goulash. This concerto is another of those works whose popularity shouldn’t obscure the fact that it’s a good piece, full stop. There’s a lot to enjoy in this recording, not least Sokolov’s ability to make the bravura sections serve the music rather than sounding like flashy add-ons. Perhaps he’s a little cool in the fruitier passages, but this is still a good performance. David Zinman’s Swiss orchestra offers tight, responsive backing.

Adele Anthony plays Ross EdwardsRoss Edwards: Maninyas, Sibelius: Violin Concerto Adele Anthony (violin), Adelaide Symphony Orchestra/Arvo Volmer (Canary Classics)

Another pair of violin concertos make unusual but effective companions on this disc from Adele Anthony, known to some as the wife of violinist Gil Shaham. She’s superb. Her sound is a bit less steely than Sokolov’s, and she makes a glowing case for Australian composer Ross Edwards’s Maninyas – its title referring to a made-up word characterising what Edwards saw as "dance-chant". The concerto was completed in 1988, after Edwards’s return to Australia from England. And you do sense a feeling of relief, of delight at coming home, in this vibrant, colourful music. Edwards writes that the sounds of droning cicadas informed the piece’s style – the irregular stops and starts, the rhythmic instability suggest this. You hesitate to describe the work as sounding Australian, but there’s a brightness, a sun-drenched warmth to the sonority that can become almost oppressive at times. Edwards’s unashamed embrace of tonality is also disconcerting, but it’s hard to resist, particularly in the brief third movement chorale. And it’s magnificently played by Anthony, whose athleticism in the faster sections is staggering.

If you accept that Maninyas’s character is rooted in the Australian climate and landscape, it’s a short step to accepting Sibelius’s 1904 Violin Concerto as a work suffused with ice, grit and damp. I love Sibelius but have always found this the hardest of his large-scale works to admire. The first movement always feels a little too baggy, with too many stops and starts before things seem to get moving. But Anthony’s slow movement is ecstatic, and she closes proceedings with a finale that’s infectious and ultimately thrilling, despite an expansive tempo. She’s superbly accompanied by Arvo Volmer’s Adelaide forces, and the recording is nicely balanced.

John Wilson's 'Made in Britain'Made in Britain Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/John Wilson (Avie)

I was lucky enough to hear John Wilson and his orchestra live a few days ago, in a brilliant programme of songs and incidental music from Hollywood musicals. He’s phenomenal, and much of the fun of seeing him conduct is to marvel at how this unassuming young man from Gateshead, looking like a precocious 15-year-old, can conjure up sounds of such dazzling richness from his hand-picked orchestra. Wilson can work his magic in other fields too – he’s conducting Opera North’s well-received revival of Ruddigore, and he leads the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra on this anthology of light British orchestral music.

And lightness is what’s required here; you look at a programme containing Vaughan Williams, Delius and Butterworth with some trepidation if you’ve the brashness of Bernstein and Irving Berlin still ringing in your ears. There is plenty of rude sparkle in Walton’s Scapino Overture – the one work here that really plays to Wilson’s strengths. It bristles with fire and energy. So much so that George Butterworth’s rather too earnest English Idylls can’t help feeling a little stodgy, despite Wilson’s ability to clarify the textures and lift the rhythms.

Bax’s The Happy Forest is much more successful, along with a sweet traversal of Delius’s The Walk to the Paradise Garden. Vaughan Williams’s English Folksong Suite teeters between the terminally naff and the guiltily pleasurable, and Wilson’s skill means that this performance leans towards the latter. There’s a sublime account of Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending with James Clarke as soloist, and Elgar’s Salut d’amour sounds exactly as it should – a modest, nicely crafted chunk of salon music. Edward German’s Nell Gwyn Overture is frothy fun, with one tune later used in a Monty Python sketch. Rich, immaculate sound and impeccable orchestral playing too.

Watch Monty Python's Fish Slapping Dance

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