fri 14/06/2024

Classical CDs Weekly: Borgström, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, Alec Frank-Gemmill | reviews, news & interviews

Classical CDs Weekly: Borgström, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, Alec Frank-Gemmill

Classical CDs Weekly: Borgström, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, Alec Frank-Gemmill

A rediscovered Norwegian concerto, a stormy romantic symphony and some virtuoso horn music

Hitting the heights: horn player Alec Frank-GemmillJen Owens


Borgstrom and ShostakovichBorgström: Violin Concerto, Shostakovich: Violin Concerto No. 1 Eldbjørg Hemsing (violin), Wiener Symphoniker/Olari Elts (BIS)

Hjalmar Borgström sounds like the name of a BBC Four gumshoe, a melancholy detective solving crimes in downtown Tromsø. He was actually a Norwegian composer (1864-1925) who, like Grieg, studied in Germany, remaining there for 15 years. Grieg quickly assimilated his technique with native folk music, later expressing dismay at the younger Borgström’s lack of interest in making his music sound specifically Norwegian. His G major Violin Concerto was premiered in 1914. It's an ambitious, 35-minute work, brimming with ideas, but you can understand why it's fallen by the wayside. It's much more German than Nordic in style. Nothing wrong with that, except that we’re talking conservative late 19th century Germany rather than Strauss. There are flashes of brilliance: the soloist enters within seconds after a flurry of timpani, and the lyrical asides are gorgeous. All very attractive (what a superb close the work has!), but nothing especially distinctive. Wonderfully played though, Eldbjørg Hemsing’s dynamism and rich, warm tone exactly what the concerto needs.

Unexpectedly, Hemsing couples it with Shostakovich's brooding Concerto No. 1. She's really impressive, sustaining the argument in the chilly Nocturne and suitably snarky in the scherzo. There's good orchestral support too from Olari Elts and the Wiener Symphoniker, low winds, tuba and percussion making plenty of impact. Hemsing is at her best in the Passacaglia, the temperature rising inexorably to boiling point. The last movement’s adrenalin rush is joyous. Excellent sound, too – an enjoyable disc.

Tchaikovsky's 6thTchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 Park Avenue Chamber Symphony/David Bernard (Recursive Classics)

Any new version of Tchaikovsky's Sixth has to be compared with Teodor Currentzis's recent Sony account, and another point of reference has to be Mravinsky’s incendiary Leningrad LP. This one, from David Bernard's New York-based Park Avenue Chamber Symphony, operates at a different level: this is a sober, reflective account lacking in overt hysteria. This isn't a bad thing, and repeated listenings highlight the disc’s strengths. Bernard doesn't wallow. There's an abundance of heady optimism at key points (the first movement’s lyrical second subject sings out with heartfelt warmth), the various crises and musical collapses a series of obstacles to be surmounted. This impression is reinforced by the ensemble's leaner sound, and what the hard-working string section lacks in weight, it makes up for in agility and grace. Passages like the brass chorale ending the first movement have a winning stoicism.

Bernard sees the middle movements as throwbacks to earlier successes, the 5/4 intermezzo a nostalgic retread of Tchaikovsky's ballet scores, the March reimagining the optimistic finales of the earlier symphonies. I'm not sure, but it's difficult to resist a third movement which exudes such positivity, Bernard’s winds and brass powerful but never obliterating all else. The slow finale’s close is resigned but not despairing. As an alternative view of an iconic work, it's worth hearing, though a little short measure at less than 45 minutes. The recorded sound is a little reverberant, but one’s ears soon adjust.

Before MozartBefore Mozart: Early Horn Concertos Alec Frank-Gemmill (horn), Swedish Chamber Orchestra/Nicholas McGegan (BIS)

Mozart's four or so horn concertos are so good that they've tended to obscure other works with a toehold in the repertoire. Alec Frank-Gemmill’s new BIS disc shines a light on five of them. None contain rollicking 6/8 hunting finales, Frank-Gemmill pointing out in his sleeve note that the early horn, when deployed as a solo instrument in art music, could express a wholly different character. 18th century Dresden was one of the European centres of hornistic excellence, the city’s trumpet guild forbidding its members from doubling up on horn, so contemporary playing techniques could be steered by hornists alone. They must have been a scarily talented bunch, if Josef Förster's Concerto No. 1 is anything to go by. This isn't earth-shattering music, but it receives a thrillingly colourful performance here. Nicholas McGegan’s Swedish Chamber Orchestra give the catchy opening tutti just enough strut, and Frank-Gemmill’s acrobatic intro is a winner. Barry Tuckwell recorded this concerto in the 1970s, and this new account is a worthy successor.

What had me salivating was a chance to hear the concerto by one Johann Baptist Georg Neruda, a piece usually appropriated by greedy trumpet players. Frank-Gemmill conclusively proves that this is a genuine horn work. It's ludicrously, impossibly high, originally written for a Dresden virtuoso who specialised in the horn’s clarino register. Telemann's D Major Concerto is less daunting, though Leopold Mozart's Sinfonia da Camera contains some scary moments. More musically satisfying is Haydn's Concerto No. 1, composed for the same player who inspired Leopold Mozart's son. Haydn’s finale is a joyous romp, a mirthsome sequence of trills and rapid arpeggios which would be more popular if it wasn't so hard to play. A superb collection.

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