mon 22/07/2024

Classical CDs Weekly: Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, Christina Sandsengen | reviews, news & interviews

Classical CDs Weekly: Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, Christina Sandsengen

Classical CDs Weekly: Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, Christina Sandsengen

Russian symphonies, a seasonal ballet and a Norwegian guitarist's debut disc

Guitarist Christina Sandsengen


Prokofiev: Symphonies 1 and 2, Sinfonietta Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Kirill Karabits (Onyx)

Only two of Prokofiev's seven symphonies seem to be performed with any regularity. Of the remainder, nos. 2 and 4 remain the shadiest, so it's pleasing to hear a blistering, cogent account of the former. Prokofiev's friend Konstantin Balmont described the composer as "a sunny Scythian". Knowing that, it's far easier to enjoy this 1925 symphony's many positives. The first movement's relentless energy does sound undeniably positive in Kirill Karabits's hands, and his Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra don't pull their punches. Turn the volume up and revel in the exuberance of Prokofiev's sonic imagination. Every conceivable orchestral sound assaults the senses, from subterranean brass and percussion blasts to shrill, stratospheric piccolo squeaks, all marshalled with some skill, and plenty of lyricism. This work brims with quirky, appealing melody, and Karabits's seamless pacing of the second movement's sequence of variations impresses. Dive in – this is a real grower of a piece, and this nicely recorded performance is one you'll want to return to. Repeatedly.

Much more familiar is Prokofiev's "Classical" Symphony, here given a beguiling, balletic performance. Karabits gets the 'Molto vivace''s tempo just right; it's fast, but not insanely so, and the Bournemouth flutes are unfazed by their fiendish arpeggios. The delectable middle movements will raise a smile; Prokofiev's subversive diatonic harmonies never resolving where we expect them to. As bonuses, we get the darkly romantic Autumnal Sketch and the effervescent, compact Sinfonietta. Its tiny Scherzo is fabulous – listening to it has to be one of the best ways you can spend three minutes.

Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker (complete) Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Neeme Järvi (Chandos)

Neeme Järvi's Bergen Philharmonic Tchaikovsky project reaches, sadly, its conclusion, and this final volume is every bit as good as the earlier ones. You're left reeling with delight at Tchaikovsky's wilder flights of invention, amazed to discover that he sometimes felt that The Nutcracker revealed his talent to be in decline. It wasn't, of course; E T A Hoffmann's children's story provided a fertile starting point, prompting music of unrivalled fantasy and wit. This score is one of those musical gifts which keeps on giving, and Järvi's performance is a peach. It's fast in places, the complete ballet squeezed onto a single CD, but never feels rushed. And, crucially, the second act never descends into schmaltzy goo, Järvi's unerring rhythmic instincts keeping the music driving forward, presumably because he's not having to worry about the physical condition of his dancers' feet. And how well played this account is, each compact number polished and gleaming. The extended "Divertissiment" is a stunner – from the perky trumpet solo opening "Le Chocolat" to the seductive wind solos in "Le Café". Bassoons chunter to comic effect in "Le Thé". There's magic at the start of the Pas de Deux – the florid harp solo immaculate, leading one to marvel at how much mileage Tchaikovsky extracts from a simple descending scale; the weighty low brass at the climax sounding as if they've strayed from one of the late symphonies. The tiny coda is astonishing here, one of the rare recorded performances where the syncopated horns don't struggle to keep up.

This shouldn't detract from the wonders to be found in Act 1. Järvi's visceral battle sequence leads into the most uplifting of musical transitions, rendered here in glowing, cinematic colours. The entry of the children's voices may provoke sniffles. It's all terrific, captured in sumptuous sound, accompanied by theartsdesk classical editor David Nice's lucid, detailed notes. A late entry into my provisional Best of 2014 list. Can we have more from this team, please? Prokofiev's Cinderella or Romeo and Juliet? Delibes' Coppelia? Britten's Prince of the Pagodas?

Shades & Contrasts Christina Sandsengen (guitar) (Odradek)

Good classical guitarists must be a recording engineer's nightmare. Performing difficult classical repertoire necessitates lots of jiggling about on the player's part, and there's always the worry that the extraneous sounds might put off the casual, ill-informed listener. Norwegian guitarist Christina Sandsengen's technique is flawless, and hearing her left hand nimbly skate up and down the fingerboard serves only to increase one's admiration. Getting a sense of the sheer physical effort involved is why most of us still enjoy listening to living, breathing musicians. Like many Odradek releases, this disc feels as if it's a live recording, taped on the hoof. Sandsengen's take on Albéniz's Asturias is typical. The insistent ostinati are laden with menace; the violent chords erupt, and she's  daringly spacious and improvisatory in the slow central section. Tarréga's melancholy Lagrima also sounds fresh under these fingers.

But the best reason to purchase this disc is for the rarities. These include Carlo Domeniconi's Koyunbaba suite, invoking Turkish folk music with some skill, and an engagingly formal Andante and Rondo by the 19th-century Spanish composer Dionisio Aguado. I'd never heard of the Paraguayan composer Agustin Pio Mangoré, whose vivid three-movement La Catedral concludes with a brilliant Allegro Solemne. Late At Night, by the contemporary Norwegian guitarist Sven Lundestad, is as cool as ice, and the disc ends with Egberto Gismonti's melancholy Água e Vinho, the final chord beautifully placed. Wonderful.

Every conceivable orchestral sound assaults the senses, from subterranean brass and percussion blasts to shrill, stratospheric piccolo squeaks

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As someone with a vested interest, but still very proud to play a small part in my favourite living conductor's latest triple whammy, I echo Graham's pleas for more from the ballet-master. Suggestions to Chandos for the Delibes ballets have been passed on, though Neeme is a grand age now and does what he can when he can. Those I think should probably be with his Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, in homage to Ansermet. But Bergen could give us Glazunov's complete Raymonda, an amazing score, and, yes, Britten would be a big surprise.

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