The Hilliard EnsemblePhoto: Marco Borggreve


Stravinsky: L'Histoire du Soldat, Octet Eastman Wind Ensemble, Eastman Virtuosi/Mark Scatterday, with Jan Opalach (narrator) (Avie)

Stravinsky's idiomatic brass and woodwind writing still surprises. Dedicated bassoonists can even purchase a hefty volume of fiendish Stravinsky orchestral excerpts. Lucky them. This performance of the neo-classical Octet features some stunning ensemble work, captured close-up in a very dry acoustic. You can hear absolutely everything, and the rapid clattering of bassoon keys adds an enjoyable textural layer; listen to them chuntering away at the start of the finale. Despite Stravinsky's claims to the contrary, this work is an expressive, accessible treat, and it's hard not to smile at the bossa-nova syncopations before the staccato final chord. And how good to hear the Eastman Wind Ensemble on disc again – vinyl buffs will probably recall their vintage LPs on the audiophile Mercury label. The playing is razor sharp, and you wish that space could have been found for Stravinsky's Symphonies of Wind Instruments.

The main attraction here is a complete performance of L'Histoire du Soldat – heard surprisingly rarely in its complete form. Fans may recall an enjoyable 1970s version featuring the voices of Tom Courtney, John Gielgud and Ron Moody. Here, the Eastman Virtuosi are joined by vocalist and actor Jan Opalach, multi-tasking in all three roles. He does a fine job, sounding as if he's spontaneously responding to Stravinsky's tiny pit orchestra, rather phoning in his contribution. The new translation of Ramuz's text is effective. Mark Scatterday leads a sparky performance; Juliana Athayde's violin playing has the right degree of astringency and Michael Burritt's percussion work is marvellous. And as with the Octet, the close, detailed sound adds to the sense of claustrophobia. Rightly so, as this blackly comic work should never be an easy listening experience.

Tchaikovsky: Symphony no 6, Romances for violin and piano Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra/Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor and piano), with Lisa Batiashvili (DG)

Tchaikovsky's final three symphonies have never sounded better than on Yevgeny Mravinsky's famous 1960s recordings, recorded by Western sound engineers while the orchestra was on tour in London. Mravinsky's intense physicality and absolute refusal to linger still impresses – to the extent that it's difficult to find modern Tchaikovsky recordings which bear comparison. Looking at the timings for Yannick Nézet-Séguin's new recording of the Pathétique suggests that we're in safe hands, with the work comfortably finishing below the 45-minute mark. There's loads to admire here. Nézet-Séguin's winds and brass project beautifully, and string articulation is ideal. The bass trombone pedal before the first movement's recapitulation is sensational, making the second subject's reprise pack an incredible punch, bravely assertive in spite of what's gone before. I also loved Nézet-Séguin's tender handling of the little brass chorale in the coda. The second movement's lolloping 5/4 rhythms are nicely characterised, the plangent trio sweetly melancholy.

The march's mood is more exultant than desperate, making the Adagio Lamentoso's plunge into the abyss more unsettling. Nézet-Séguin's refusal to linger pays enormous dividends. There's a wholly appropriate dark grittiness to this orchestra's sound. This is one of the best modern Pathétiques available. As a bonus, we get piano and violin transcriptions of several of Tchaikovsky's Romances. They sound highly effective, and they're very well-played by Lisa Batiashvili and accompanied by Nézet-Séguin on piano, keen to draw parallels between two of the darker Op.73 set and the symphony's last movement.

The Hilliard Ensemble: Il Cor Tristo – music by Bernardo Pisano, Roger Marsh and Jacques Arcadelt (ECM)

The Hilliard Ensemble will give their final concerts before retirement later this year, so enjoy them while you can. They've been performing since 1974, and the present line-up have been in place since 1990 – counter-tenor David James the one remaining founder member. He's still in fabulous, distinctive voice, singing with a piercing clarity that's never strident. Il Cor Tristo programmes 16th-century Italian madrigals on Petrarch texts with new settings of cantos from Dante's Inferno by Roger Marsh. Marsh writes that his main aim was “to keep Dante's words clear at all times, and thus you will find in this contemporary music many devices usually encountered in music of much earlier times.” There's also the matter of getting through an awful lot of Dante's text in a very short time. Marsh manages this beautifully, and listening to the Hilliards perform his sequence is an entertaining, theatrical experience.

Speech patterns dictate the flexibility of the rhythms, and the harmonies sound refreshingly modern but never at odds with the earlier madrigals. There are so many felicitous touches – sample baritone Gordon Jones's steady tread at the close of the first number, while the other three voices scamper above. Marsh's extended third movement is spellbinding. Elsewhere, six madrigals by Bernardo Pisano are sublime – their sophistication effortlessly projected by these voices. Three more by Jacques Arcadelt complete the sequence, their brighter, more open textures a welcome contrast. It's all excellent, and handsomely recorded in rich, resonant sound.

it's hard not to smile at the bossa-nova syncopations before the staccato final chord

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