tue 20/10/2020

Classical CDs Weekly: Elgar, Walton, Zempléni | reviews, news & interviews

Classical CDs Weekly: Elgar, Walton, Zempléni

Classical CDs Weekly: Elgar, Walton, Zempléni

Vintage Elgar, scintillating Walton and some high-class horn playing

This week’s carefully sifted classical releases include two symphonies by a fastidious, underrated Lancastrian, and a life-enhancing compilation of scratchy recordings conducted by a notable British composer. On a smaller scale, there’s an engaging collection of music for horn and piano, brilliantly performed by a young Hungarian player.

The Elgar Edition – The Complete Electrical Recordings of Sir Edward Elgar Various Orchestras and soloists/Sir Edward Elgar (EMI)

Elgar made many acoustic recordings of his music between 1914 and 1925. The acoustic recording process used a large horn funnelling the sound onto shellac discs. There wasn’t much scope for subtle orchestral reproduction; violins were usually indiscernible and brass players often had to beef up the lower string lines. Electrical recording, introduced in the mid-1920s, allowed greater definition and dynamic range, and this budget-price box collects all of Elgar’s EMI electrical recordings, set down between 1926 and 1933.

It’s surprising how few allowances need to be made for the scratchy mono sound. Elgar was a skilled conductor of his own work, and what’s refreshing is how swift and urgent an interpreter he was. The sleeve notes quash the idea that the fast speeds were a result of trying to squeeze long works into three-minute takes to fit on the sides of 78 rpm discs – this was how he envisaged his music as sounding.

Where to start? The two symphonies have rarely sounded less parochial and more like fin de siècle European classics. I’m thinking of the shattering climax of the First’s opening movement or the percussive eruption in the third movement of the Second. Falstaff has never sounded so cogent, so witty or so moving. Hearing extracts from Gerontius is fascinating as a record of how singing styles have changed, and we’ve the young Yehudi Menuhin’s famous version of the Violin Concerto. Beatrice Harrison gave the first performance of the Cello Concerto and her reading must count as definitive. The two Wand of Youth suites are brilliantly played by a vintage LSO, along with the underrated Nursery and Severn Suites. There’s a sequence of Elgar’s piano improvisations and a generous selection of miniatures, and it’s startling to hear the composer’s voice rehearsing the LSO in part of the Second Symphony. This set is a revelatory bargain - once you start dipping in you can't stop.

Walton: Symphonies 1 and 2, Siesta BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins (Hyperion)

Walton’s Symphony No 1, completed in 1935 after a troubled gestation, is a compelling, often gripping, but troubling piece; there’s something unsettling about all the macho bluster and relentless tutti writing. It can seem a little too self-conciously epic, and some of Walton’s borrowings sound more blatant as time passes, particularly the cheeky nod to Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony in the final minute. Good performances do convince you that it’s a masterpiece, and Martyn Brabbins’s account is very, very good. There’s plenty of savagery when needed, and the bombast is slightly underplayed but with no loss of energy or momentum.

I’ve always preferred the Second Symphony, commissioned in 1956 but only completed in 1960. The surprise is that a work which had such a delayed and troubled birth sounds so spontaneous. Walton’s orchestral technique is now more fluent and better controlled, and this compact three-movement work never puts a foot wrong. It’s still recognisably Walton, brassy eruptions disturbing the flow of bittersweet string themes, and the texture shimmers and sparkles with an edgy swagger. It feels like the work of a much younger, more confident composer. Brabbins’s performance really delivers, notably in the eerie slow interlude in the last movement, and the final brass-drenched minutes. It’s that good. Hyperion generously include the miniature 1926 Siesta between the symphonies, and the recording is rich and detailed. Excellent cover art too – Michael Ayrton’s 1948 portrait of Walton a brilliant, affectionate character study. A must-buy.

Colours of the French Horn Szabolcs Zempléni (horn), Péter Nagy (piano) (Oehms)

Szabolcs Zempléni’s lovely horn sound will convince you. It’s beautifully coloured, rich and with a soft vibrato which never gets in the way. His playing is ripely assertive but never too loud or overbearing – this is a disc of horn and piano works, not a solo recital.

At the heart of Zempléni’s programme is Schumann’s Op 70 Adagio and Allegro, an early (1849) attempt to exploit the chromatic potential of the newly invented valve horn. Often played on cello, the horn version is miles better; Schumann understood the horn’s character and his writing always sounds idiomatic – the triplets in the Allegro a throwback to the instrument’s hunting origins. Rossini’s entertaining Prelude, Theme and Variations is more self-consciously virtuosic but less memorable. Strauss’s early Andante, written as a gift for his father to play, is another textbook example of good horn writing.

Poulenc’s Elégie was composed as a touching response to the death of the horn player Dennis Brain in 1957. Zempléni’s reading is sombre and eloquent, the bold chromatic opening chilling and the final cantabile solo more poignant than usual.

Jean Françaix’s slight Divertimento is lightweight and enjoyable, but you feel that this music wouldn’t sound radically different played on another solo instrument. The disc ends with Volker David Kirchner’s Tre poemi – making imaginative use of the horn’s natural harmonics and at one point having the soloist blow into the open piano, making the strings resonate. It's a wonderful effect. Zempléni’s playing is impeccable, and he’s sensitively accompanied by pianist Péter Nagy. A horn recital disc for those who think they don’t like horn recitals.

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