sat 20/04/2024

Classical CDs Weekly: Nielsen, Kristjan Järvi, Benjamin Grosvenor | reviews, news & interviews

Classical CDs Weekly: Nielsen, Kristjan Järvi, Benjamin Grosvenor

Classical CDs Weekly: Nielsen, Kristjan Järvi, Benjamin Grosvenor

Feisty Danish symphonies, orchestral music from the Balkans and the latest disc from a young British pianist

Kristjan Järvi: making a full orchestra shimmyphoto: Peter Adamik


Nielsen: Symphonies 1 and 4 New York Philharmonic/Alan Gilbert (Dacapo)

Alan Gilbert tears into the opening of Nielsen 4 with some ferocity, sustaining the forward motion very nicely indeed. Until, well, we'll get to that later. This symphony needs to feel slightly unhinged, a boiling cauldron of sound. You suspect that this performance works so well because Gilbert hasn't micromanaged things, letting an on-form New York Philharmonic let rip. The brass scythe through the first movement with precision and abandon, and Gilbert's especially good at managing the tempo and metre changes. Dacapo's wonderful sound lets us unpick Nielsen's dense, contrapuntal textures with ease. The sweet-natured, incongruous Poco allegretto is beautifully played, almost an interloper in the wrong piece. It's suddenly, brutally interrupted by the third movement's string recitative. Gilbert's blazing climax, seven minutes in, has to be heard to be believed. And the Allegro's duelling timps? They're astonishing here, leading into a coda which slightly underwhelms owing to the unmarked slowing down in the final minutes. That big 3/2 chorale needs to push on, or it risks sounding pompous. You're inclined to forgive Gilbert, as what's gone before is so good.

But it's the delectable Symphony no 1 which I've returned to again and again, Nielsen tipping his hat to Brahms and Dvorak whilst creating something highly individual. So much of what we hear in the mature symphonies is already present. Flattened sevenths give the melodies a unique shape, and the woodwind writing is glorious. Ostensibly a symphony in G minor, it begins and ends in bright C major. Gilbert really nails the music's fiery volatility, and you envy anyone experiencing the piece for the first time. He can also relax, to pleasing effect. Two quiet passages in this performance stand out: the gorgeous horn and bassoon solo near the close of the Andante, and the reprise of the third movement Trio. Intoxicating, uplifting music.

The Kristjan Järvi Sound Project – Balkan Fever MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra/ Kristjan Järvi (Naive)

George Enescu's Romanian Rhapsody no 1 receives a gorgeously ripe live performance here. The control is sensational. Kristjan Järvi looks happy but exhausted in the booklet photos and it's easy to hear why; making a full orchestra shimmy like this takes some doing. The gear changes are effortless. And what a daft, irresistible piece it is – Enescu's sequence of folk tunes cleverly sequenced and given virtuoso orchestration. Naive's close recording balance lets us hear everything. The piece's abrupt close is masterly, audibly catching the audience unawares. The Enescu is the only "conventional" opus on the disc, the other items skilful arrangements of Balkan popular music made by group-led Bulgarian composer and kaval player Theodosii Spassov.

The kaval's breathy tone dominates several numbers. Suitably percussive at the start of Kite, it's heard to lesser effect in the preceding number, Eleno. The instrument's feral wildness is reined in, Spassov floating incongrously over gloopy, saccharine strings. This is the album's one mis-step though; everything else is a blast, made more exciting by a valiant orchestra just managing to stay one step ahead. The closing Gipsy Dance is daft but electrifying, made more so by guitarists Vlatko Stefanovski and Miroslav Tadić. They also collaborate with Spassov on two extended improvisations based on traditional Balkan music. The second, Kaljdzisko Oro, is the livelier, the rhythmic complexities holding no terrors.

Benjamin Grosvenor: Dances (Decca)

Benjamin Grosvenor's unfolding career stands out in terms of what he's not yet done. His discography isn't large, and he's not been coerced into recording boring performances of standard repertoire. You sense that he's been trusted to develop at his own pace. This well-planned recital disc, based on pieces chosen for his South Bank debut in 2012, is consistently brilliant. I've not heard him do Bach before; the Partita no 4's Ouverture unfolds with mesmerising clarity and confidence, followed by a luxuriant, melting Allemande. Faster movements sparkle, the final Gigue dispatched with a cheeky, though never cocky, wit. Chopin is represented by his large-scale Andante spianato et Grande Polonaise brilliante and the darker Polonaise in F sharp minor. Decca's rich sound makes the latter a brooding, visceral experience, so it's a relief to reach three early mazurkas composed by the young Scriabin. His Op. 38 Valse is more characteristic – sensual, fruity music, hinting at the voluptuous extravagance of this composer's later work.

Rarer are 8 Valses poéticos written in 1900 by Granados, their cleaner, sparer lines a welcome contrast to Scriabin's decadence. Grosvenor plays them deftly, simply, and with enormous affection. He's under greater pressure in Adolf Schulz-Evler's deeply silly set of Arabesques on Johann Strauss's By the Beautiful Blue Danube. The playing is dazzling, though the piece ultimately irritates. Schulz-Evler's over-elaborate decoration strips Strauss's melodies of any charm, and you're left feeling slightly nauseous. Two encores do hit the spot – Godowsky's lush reworking of Albéniz's Tango, and a terrifying, exhilarating Boogie-Woogie Etude composed by Morton Gould in 1943. Classy stuff.

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