mon 25/10/2021

Classical CDs Weekly: Adams, Bach, Brahms | reviews, news & interviews

Classical CDs Weekly: Adams, Bach, Brahms

Classical CDs Weekly: Adams, Bach, Brahms

Contemporary orchestral fireworks, a Baroque choral blockbuster and a pair of weighty piano concertos

Václav Luks with his Collegium 1704 and Collegium Vocale 1704Luděk Sojka

John Adams: Harmonielehre, Doctor Atomic Symphony, Short Ride in a Fast Machine Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Peter Oundjian (Chandos)

Harmonielehre's opening E minor chords ring out with unusual force in this swiftly-paced performance. The benchmark performance remains Michael Tilson Thomas's recent live San Francisco Symphony version, but this new one has some sensational moments. The RSNO's brass and percussion acquit themselves brilliantly, and Chandos's sound is punchy and immediate. Peter Oundjian understands the work's structure, allowing the repetitive ostinati to register as music rather than doodles. There's a magical example of this about five minutes in, just before Adams's sublime wordless aria on horn and strings enters. Harmonielehre has so much to interest the open-minded – the smart musical references to Mahler, Ravel, Sibelius and Schoenberg, the glittering orchestral palette. More importantly, it's audible proof that it's still possible to write intelligent, engaging tonal orchestral music on a large scale. Adams's abrupt close, simultaneously unexpected and totally deserved, remains a stunner.

The Doctor Atomic Symphony is a free-standing spinoff from Adams's 2005 Manhattan Project opera. Abrasive and compact, it's a chilly, though fascinating work. And evidence that Adams's music, unlike that of some minimalists, continues to evolve. The gestures are more abrupt, the harmonies are bolder, but this couldn't have been written by anyone else. Huw Morgan's extended trumpet solos are beautifully played, and the savage, nihilistic coda wholly befits the opera's subject matter. As a bonus, there's the effervescent Short Ride in a Fast Machine. I could have done without the over-prominent woodblock, but the four minutes pass in a flash. Quirky sleeve art too.

Bach: Mass in B Minor Collegium 1704, Collegium Vocale 1704/Václav Luks (Accent)

Bach's Mass in B Minor is such a vast, all-encompassing work that acquiring recordings of it can become an obsession. Does one opt for the lean, single-voice per part option adopted by the likes of Andrew Parrott? Or weighty inauthenticity (see Karajan or Klemperer)?  If you find John Eliot Gardiner a bit too hard-driven, Václav Luks's set, recorded in Prague, will hit the spot. This is a wonderful, beautifully-presented set which succeeds on every level. Luks's small choir possess the knack of producing exactly the right sonority for each movement. There's ample heft when you need it, but also an enchanting grace, an ease of movement. Listen to them dancing in Bach's Gloria and marvel at the clarity. The opening Kyrie Eleison possesses all the grandeur you'll need. Much of this recording's success lies in Luks's ability to always choose the right tempi. Fast speeds become a liability if texts become a meaningless gabble and instrumentalists can't articulate. Equally, go too slowly and the performers run out of breath.

Luks's Cum Sancto Spiritu is among the most joyous you'll hear, aided by a trio of matchless natural trumpets. Bach's more austere movements unwind with clarity and purpose. The short Crucifixus gleams with intent. The Sanctus's bouncing, descending bass line is buoyant. And it's all presented on a very human, approachable scale. Good soloists too, especially soprano Hana Blažíková and bass Marián Krejčík. You'll marvel at Bach's genius instead of feeling intimated by it. This work should be known, and loved, by everyone, and I can't imagine a better introduction to it than this.

Brahms: The Piano Concertos Stephen Hough, Mozarteumorchester Salzburg/Mark Wigglesworth (Hyperion)

Hyperion's sound here is brilliantly immediate, and the gruff tutti which opens Brahms's D minor concerto is startling. Such an unusual start for a concerto – the music brooding, seething with fury. You wonder if the pianist will get a look in. Mark Wigglesworth's Mozarteumorchester Salzburg produce a lean, wiry sound – far less refulgent than we're used to. And it works, making Stephen Hough's first entry all the more unexpected – the first solo not a million miles from genteel salon music. Hough can be a mercurial pianist, able to project with the lightest of touches, but Brahms's more daunting writing carries satisfying weight here. Wigglesworth and Hough manage to avoid any sense of stodginess - the 6/4 metre flows very nicely indeed, the waltz rhythms offering a welcome touch of light relief. Hough makes Brahms's Adagio sing with unforced eloquence, but the best thing here is the final Rondo. The coda's shift to D major is one of music's most uplifting moments, and it's marvellous in these hands, Hough's bass lines ringing out with percussive brilliance.

Brahms's Concerto no 2, though a more mature, confident work, just doesn't seem as much fun – the Allegro non troppo's 4/4 plod a little too stately and self-satisfied. Brahms joked that the movement was "harmless", providing vivid contrast in the form of a dark, minor-key scherzo. Hough catches the lilt as well as the melancholy. Marcus Pouget's cello solo in the extended Andante offers additional pleasures, but not even Hough's genius can prevent the Allegro grazioso from sounding slightly inconsequential – an oddly unsatisfying conclusion to such a weighty piece. I'm nitpicking – these are very good performances, well-recorded and reasonably priced. Good notes, too.


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