sun 21/04/2024

Classical CDs Weekly: Nielsen, Prokofiev, Sculthorpe, Tchaikovsky | reviews, news & interviews

Classical CDs Weekly: Nielsen, Prokofiev, Sculthorpe, Tchaikovsky

Classical CDs Weekly: Nielsen, Prokofiev, Sculthorpe, Tchaikovsky

Danish symphonies, Russian piano concertos and Australian string quartets

The Del Sol Quartet and Stephen KentJim Block


Nielsen: Symphonies 5 and 6 New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Alan Gilbert (Dacapo)

Nielsen told the press that his sixth and final symphony was “in a lighter vein than my other symphonies – there are cheerful things in it.” There are cheerful things in the other five too; the blazing positivity of this composer's music is its most endearing characteristic. No. 5 closes with an incandescent major chord, while No. 6 bids farewell with a farting bassoon pedal that would have pleased Haydn. This is a strange, occasionally baffling symphony, more capricious and wayward than its predecessors. The first movement opens in bucolic mood, later swinging between radiant clarity and harsh, spiteful dissonance. We're continually wrong-footed. There's no epic sweep, and the textures are frequently skeletal. It's never less than gripping though, and the quiet, resigned coda has unbearable poignancy. It's followed by a string-free "Humoresque" which still sounds modern, full of leering trombone slides and drum rolls. There's a bleak, solemn "Proposta seria" before the Finale's variations on a slippery bassoon theme. Amongst all the craziness there's the sense that Nielsen is writing purely for himself, testing the limits and seeing just what he could get away with. A lilting waltz gets squashed by trombones, and the strings' final flourish is overtaken by oompah brass writing. It's fiendishly difficult to bring off, and Alan Gilbert's reading is sensationally played by the New York Philharmonic, if lacking the last degree of fantasy.

There's a indispensable 1960s recording of Nielsen's Fifth made by Bernstein with this orchestra. But buy this new live version too. Gilbert's weighty, serious approach is effective. The extended static passages are unusually ominous, brass and percussion letting rip to deafening effect. The improvised side drum solo is terrifying. The first movement's pale, exhausted close is wonderful, preceding a second movement where Gilbert's well-chosen tempo allows his players to articulate the notes. The symphony's dizzying ending rightly astonishes, Nielsen avoiding the expected peroration with an abrupt, ecstatic screeching of brakes. Sensational music, superbly played, and a fitting conclusion to an impressive new Nielsen cycle.

Peter Sculthorpe: The Complete String Quartets with Didjeridu Del Sol Quartet, Stephen Kent (Didjeridu) (Sono Luminus)

This ear-stretching instrumental liaison shouldn't work. The string quartet? Think gentility, manners, delicacy, subtlety  while the didjeridu at full pelt is one of the world's rawest, earthiest noises. What could be the premise for a naff musical sitcom turns out to be a musical coupling with plenty of mileage. I was knocked for six by this pair of discs, and anyone bold enough to sample them will surely feel the same. The late Peter Sculthorpe composed 18 string quartets, and had never felt comfortable with the idea of incorporating native Australian instruments into his music. Until the didjeridu virtuoso William Barton asked him in 2001 if the String Quartet No. 12 could be adapted – a relatively straightforward task, as the instrument's droning pedal notes were already suggested in the orchestral pieces which formed the basis of the quartet. Sculthorpe's late music reflects his growing concerns with "nature, the environment... and climate change", as well as the darker aspects of Australian history. The 12th Quartet is subtitled From Ubirr and was inspired by a rocky landscape in the Northern Territory. Describing Sculthorpe's music as pictorial isn't a slight; this isn't conventional Western music, and classical forms aren't a part of it. The 14th Quartet was prompted by the treatment of the Indigenous inhabitants of Sculthorpe's native Tasmania. Passages of calm simplicity coexist with bird calls, magically realised on bowed harmonic glissandi.

Stephen Kent's didjeridu is more prominent in the 16th Quartet, inspired by Australia's ongoing mistreatment of asylum seekers. The first movement's mournful string writing is overtaken by Kent's roaring, his instrument leaping into life a minute from the close. The quartet's visionary ending is affirmative and ecstatic. This is vibrant, viscerally effective contemporary music, not new age pap. As is the visionary 18th Quartet, completed by Sculthorpe on his 81st birthday in 2010. There's a palpable sense of excitement and discovery in the Del Sol Quartet's playing, and Solo Luminus's engineering is unobtrusively spectacular. They even throw in a bonus Blu Ray audio disc for those with the right equipment.

Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1; Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 2 Kirill Gerstein (piano), Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/James Gaffigan (Myrios Classics)

Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto exists in three versions. The final, best-known one was published posthumously. Kirill Gerstein gives us here the 1879 second version, used as a conducting score by the composer, and his lucid sleeve notes bravely attempt to unpick the tangled history of the concerto's various editions. It's suggested that the villain of the piece was Tchaikovsky's student Alexander Siloti, whose unauthorised meddlings were preserved in the third, 1894 edition. Sharp-eared listeners will notice the arpeggiated chords in the opening flourish, which sounds less bombastic and hackneyed as a result. This performance's mellower, more reflective cast is as much to do with Gerstein's thoughtful, lyrical performance as to the version he plays; this concerto can be a bit of a slog, but never so here. A passage cut from the finale is restored, lending a it a little more weight. James Gaffigan gets superb support from the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, and keeps things moving in the closing minutes.

What we all know and love as Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 2 isn't an original either; Prokofiev's manuscript was lost in a fire during the Russian revolution and reconstructed from memory a decade later. Get past the work's shocks and there's a great deal of very potent lyricism; sections of the smouldering first movement owe a significant debt to Rachmaninov. Gerstein's fearless stamina gets him through the vast cadenza with unerring ease, and he's alert to the music's pain and dislocation. The heavy brass don't disappoint in their fortissimo descending thirds, and there's mercurial wit to offset the darkness in the subsequent movements. Bass trombone affecionadoes will love some very Russian-sounding pedal notes in the finale. All superbly recorded and well annotated.

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