mon 19/04/2021

Classical CDs Weekly: Dvořák, Rózsa, Xenakis | reviews, news & interviews

Classical CDs Weekly: Dvořák, Rózsa, Xenakis

Classical CDs Weekly: Dvořák, Rózsa, Xenakis

Phenomenal Modernism, Dvorak's best symphony, a film composer's other life

An unreleased live recording from a much missed conductor provides heartwarming food for the soul, while another podium giant brings musicality to uncompromising Modernism, aided by a phenomenal pianist. Meanwhile, a Hungarian exile in Hollywood takes a break from composing film scores and thinks of home.

51VuUBt-alL._SL500_AA300_Dvořák: Symphonic Variations, Symphony No 8 London Philharmonic Orchestra/Mackerras (LPO)

One of those rare conductors universally liked by orchestral musicians, Sir Charles Mackerras’s untimely death last year hasn’t stopped the steady stream of reissues and live recordings. The Philharmonia’s own label has issued performances of Dvořák’s last two symphonies from 2008, and now we’ve a 1992 LPO performance of the Eighth recorded in 1992 in the RFH. There are also EMI studio recordings of these works made in the early 1990s. Which is close to overkill.

But nerds like me like hearing the same works countless times in different performances. And this is probably Dvořák’s best symphony – more genial than the Seventh and less hackneyed than the Ninth. The orchestral playing is characterful – the LPO’s principal flute is on superb form, and the weight with which the lower strings dig into the opening movement’s second theme is really impressive. Mackerras’s flexibility is what makes everything gel so well – the tiny slowing-down before the same string entry like being drawn into a friendly conversation.

The Adagio’s rapt nature worship is almost Mahlerian, especially during the rapturous coda – all stratospheric strings and chiming trumpets. The Allegretto grazioso swings, and the last movement’s sequence of variations veer between the raucous and the heart stopping, none more so than when things almost come to a halt before the ebullient finish. The coupling, the Symphonic Variations, provides an inventive, witty curtain raiser. Mackerras and the LPO made excellent studio recordings of these works shortly after this concert. But this live one is better still, with excellent sound and a well-behaved audience.

Miklós Rózsa: Orchestral Works Vol 2 BBC Philharmonic/Gamba, with Jennifer Pike (violin) and Paul Watkins (cello) (Chandos)

613SpUsjTTL._SL500_AA300_Remembered mostly as a composer of soundtracks, Budapest-born Miklós Rózsa scored 95 films between 1937 and 1981. He collaborated with Alfred Hitchcock on Spellbound and William Wyler on Ben Hur. From the 1940s, Hollywood provided Rózsa with a place to live and a secure income, but he managed to sustain a parallel career as a concert composer.

The works on this disc are not as bold as anything written by Bartók and Kodály, two composers hugely admired by Rózsa, but they’re hugely engaging and unmistakably, distinctively Hungarian in flavour. The early Variations on a Hungarian Peasant Song for violin and orchestra are based on a theme that Rózsa had heard in his birthplace. It’s attractive and tightly constructed – there’s a brilliant slow passage near the end with the soloist playing high harmonics, before a brash coda. The Vintner’s Daughter, written in exile in 1952, is another set of variations. Slightly longer and considerably more fluent, it’s melodically generous and brilliantly orchestrated – sample the piquant bell sounds at the close.

The Notturno Ungherese, a 1962 commission for Ormandy’s Philadelphia Orchestra is followed by the ambitious 1968 Cello Concerto, composed for the exiled Hungarian cellist János Starker. It is a darker, tougher piece, though even Rózsa in relatively gritty mode can’t resist an occasional eruption into widescreen schmaltz, as in the slow movement’s climax. Each of these works is worthy of the care lavished on them by Rumon Gamba. The orchestra plays brilliantly, and Paul Watkins and Jennifer Pike are excellent soloists. It's marvellous.

418946Wien Modern III – music by Dallapiccola, Henze, Perezzani, Xenakis Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester/Abbado, with Roger Woodward, piano (Deutsche Grammophon)

This is an outstanding collection of 20th-century modernity, played by one of the world’s best youth orchestras and led by one of the most intelligent of living conductors. This live DG recording, recently reissued, was taped in Vienna in 1992.

Luigi Dallapiccola’s Piccola musica notturna is a nocturnal evocation both chilly and seductive, and a beguiling example of how 12-tone music can sound warm and sensuous in the right hands.

None of which will prepare you for the delirious physical impact of Greek composer Iannis Xenakis’s Keqrops, a 1986 work played here by its dedicatee, Roger Woodward. Xenakis’s terrifying piano part, in some places written across 10 staves, is dispatched with ease by Woodward, while Abbado ensures that every orchestral detail is clearly audible within a natural-sounding acoustic. I love those swirling string glissandi five minutes in and the piano cadenza that follows, quickly interrupted by chattering high winds. The final piano thud, preceded by some stunning bass trombone pedal notes, is about as definitive a musical full stop as you’ll ever hear. It's terrifying but exhilarating.

Paolo Perezzani’s 1990 Primavera dell’anima soothes at first, before erupting violently near the close. Hans Werner Henze’s Sinfonische intermezzi, from his early opera Boulevard Solitude, are exquisite; the composer's unstoppable lyrical sense filtered through echoes of Berg, Mahler and Puccini. The closing work, Henze’s Mänadenjagd, is one of the most physically exciting things you’ll ever hear. But doesn’t the percussive opening trick you into thinking that you’re about to hear the Mambo from West Side Story?

Add comment

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters