sat 19/01/2019

Classical CDs Weekly: Scodanibbio, Shostakovich, Nigel Kennedy | reviews, news & interviews

Classical CDs Weekly: Scodanibbio, Shostakovich, Nigel Kennedy

Classical CDs Weekly: Scodanibbio, Shostakovich, Nigel Kennedy

Fascinating string quartet transcriptions, a blockbusting symphony and a much-maligned violinist doing what he does best

Brilliantly alive - the artist formerly known as KennedyPaul Marc Mitchell/Sony Classical

 

Stefano Scodanibbio: Reinventions for string quartet Quartetto Prometeo (ECM)

Stefano Scodanibbio (1956-2012) was an Italian double bass player and composer. As a bassist, the likes of Brian Ferneyhough and Iannis Xenakis wrote for him. On this disc we have his Reinventions, a beguiling sequence of sophisticated, highly imaginative arrangements for string quartet. Three Contrapuncti from Bach’s The Art of Fugue punctuate beautifully quirky transcriptions of Spanish guitar music and Mexican popular song. The Bach realisations are extraordinary. They’re played at glacial tempi, full of eerie harmonics and startling string textures. Bach’s themes abruptly shift register and change colour, the music’s contrapuntal inner workings laid out as if they’re being examined on a mortuary slab. In these hands, Bach sounds both reassuringly familiar and oddly contemporary.

The transcriptions of more popular material are cut from the same cloth, with slow speeds casting dark shadows and adding Mahlerian gravitas. In the Quattro Pezzi Spagnoli, Scodanibbio makes predictably idiomatic use of pizzicati to mimic guitar sounds. The results are almost painfully bittersweet. The five Canzoniere Messicano feel still more personal – the composer considered the popular song Bésame mucho to be the most beautiful ever written and handles it with a tenderness that’s heartbreaking. You need to listen to the whole disc in sequence. Magnificently played by the Quartetto Prometeo, and richly recorded too.

Shostakovich: Symphony no 7 Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Vasily Petrenko (Naxos)

Vasily Petrenko’s revisionist Shostakovich cycle hits new heights with this reading of the wartime Leningrad Symphony. This is a big-boned, satisfying blast of a performance. It's daringly expansive in scale and astonishingly loud in places – Naxos’s sound is thrillingly widescreen in the brassier moments. This isn’t a symphony that anyone can be expected to enjoy in a conventional sense, but Petrenko will keep most listeners fully engaged for 79 minutes. He doesn’t overlay any irony, any subtext, playing the music commendably straight. The first movement’s chunky opening theme is beautifully, smoothly shaped, and the all-important solos on violin and piccolo six minutes in are gorgeous – making the side drum’s entry that much more unsettling. Shostakovich’s cacophonous climax is ear-splitting, made more so by Petrenko’s trenchant, careful pacing. Thrilling, in other words.

Spacious readings of the middle movements aren’t any less compelling; there’s an exquisite oboe solo near the start of the Moderato and the Stravinskian chorale which opens the third movement is stark and ritualistic. The Liverpool strings are unfazed by their high-lying cantilena, and the extended finale holds together much better than it usually does – again, because Petrenko is so adept at grasping the bigger picture. The coda is refreshingly irony-free. There’s so much to admire here - the playing is excellent, the engineering magnificent. You’ll believe that this is one of the greatest symphonies of the last century.

Nigel Kennedy: Recital – Music by Fats Waller, Dave Brubeck, Bach etc (Sony)

Nice to see that Nigel Kennedy has readopted his first name. He remains a divisive figure; a violinist friend’s partner recently walked out of one of his concerts, annoyed by a surfeit of mockney banter. Superficially he’s an easy figure to dislike. Yet I’ve heard few string players say a word against his playing. Listen to this eclectic recital blind and you’d probably be dazzled, wondering who the player was. Kennedy’s playing is marvellous – brilliantly alive, rhythmically alert and full of character. Few artists could record a crossover disc which sounds so quirky and offbeat – this release deserves to sell well for all the right reasons. Dave Brubeck’s Take Five opens with a peculiar klezmer-ish wailing, and when the tune arrives it sings with a nonchalance miles away from Brubeck's rather uptight original. There’s the same sense of fun in four Fats Waller covers, held together by Yaron Stavi’s impeccable bass playing.

Two inventive Bach transcriptions will annoy purists, channelling both Kennedy's idol Stéphane Grappelli and Jacques Loussier, but they work beautifully. You hear the players giggling during a reinvention of the Double Concerto’s opening movement, and it feels entirely right, not indulgent. A deeply likeable, gently subversive disc, and one which might yet convince Kennedy-phobes.

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