January 2021 Classical Record Reviews

Jakob Bangsø: Corigliano, Caravassilis, Siegel: Guitar Concertos
Jakob Bangsø, guitar; Tallinn Chamber Orchestra, Kaisa Roose, cond.
Orchid Classics ORC100142 (CD, auditioned in 24/44.1 WAV). 2020. Pouya Hamidi, et al., engs.
Performance ****
Sonics ****

Danish guitarist Jakob Bangsø, 32, may not be widely known in the US, but he has already commissioned seven works. This generous recital includes premiere recordings of Constantine Caravassilis's beautiful, must-hear Saudade: Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra (2018) and Wayne Siegel's more derivative Chaconne: Concerto for Guitar and Chamber Orchestra (2016). Both were inspired by the one modern classic on this generously timed recording, Corigliano's Troubadours: Variations for Guitar and Chamber Orchestra (1993).

Troubadours, composed for Sharon Isbin, features a beguiling Spanish melody, eerie accompaniment, original language, and a pervasive sense of nostalgia. Hence Caravassilis's title, Saudade, which in Portuguese evokes bittersweet memory. I can't get enough of Saudade's mysterious, wistful beauty, with iridescent touches punctuated by deep bass and fascinating percussion. Its Adagietto evokes memories of the Adagio from Mahler's Symphony No.5, but it's strikingly unique.

Less unique is Siegel's Chaconne, which quotes Philip Glass too often and directly. Chaconne starts strong, with evocative vocals, but can't seem to decide what it is or where it's headed.

Thanks to the superb partnership between Bangsø and conductor Kaisa Roose, as well as excellent editing and mixing by a team of engineers, balances are ideal, with a natural-sounding guitar placed in front of an orchestra whose percussive ventures are captured well. If only someone had excised the splice around 10:41 in Troubadours and enhanced realism with a higher sampling rate.—Jason Victor Serinus


Beethoven: Christus am Ölberge
Elsa Dreisig, soprano (Seraph); Pavel Breslík, tenor (Christus); David Soar, bass (Petrus); London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Sir Simon Rattle, cond.
LSO Live LSO0862 (CD). 2020. Andrew Cornall, prod.; Jonathan Stokes, Neil Hutchinson, engs.
Performance ****
Sonics *****

Christus am Ölberge, a sacred oratorio, is a Beethovenian anomaly. It eschews storming the heavens, balancing dramatic passages against gentler lyric episodes. Most of its vocal solos would fit easily into a Haydn oratorio.

Sir Simon Rattle conducts firmly and forthrightly, without his tendency toward spinelessness. The dramatic passages are taut and driving, although some of the tremolos could use more rhythmic point, and the quieter bits move with purpose. Some soft string chorales remain pallid and under-energized. Rattle conjures buzzing anticipation at the start of the tenor aria, precisely gauges the interplay of chorus and soloist in O Heil euch, and launches the concluding fugue with a nice lightness. The playing is characterful with liquid, sensitive reeds and strong, clean brass accents: The trombone-and-reed chords before the duet suggest Don Giovanni. Against this, the string afterbeats impede the opening number's motion; later, we get some imprecise, miscoordinated patches of ensemble.

Soprano Elsa Dreisig's clear, vibrant legato, lovely trills, and dramatic urgency are fetching, though she has to slow down for her aria's runs. Pavel Breslík is initially unsettled as Christus, straining up top, but his singing improves as he proceeds, ringing out clearly. David Soar's solid bass evokes an authoritative Petrus. The LSO Chorus is disciplined, well-blended, and attentive to articulations.

I've never understood the complaints about the Barbican acoustic. In any case, this recording is first-class, registering brass interjections with vivid depth.—Stephen Francis Vasta


Sir John Tavener: No Longer Mourn for Me
Steven Isserlis, cello; Matthew Rose, bass; Abi Sampa, vocals; Trinity Boys Choir; Philharmonia Orchestra, Omer Meir Wellber, cond.
Hyperíon CDA68246 (CD, auditioned in 24/96 WAV). 2020. Mark Brown, prod.; Simon Eadon, eng.
Performance ****½
Sonics ****

This recording is profoundly personal, the fulfillment of a promise Isserlis made to Tavener shortly before the composer's death. It collects five of Tavener's most inspired late pieces, two of which—Preces and Responses (2013) and No longer mourn for me (2010)—Isserlis arranged, à la Villa-Lobos, for an orchestra of eight cellos.

Isserlis, who premiered Tavener's The Protecting Veil (1988), centered the recording around the thorny, Tolstoy-inspired The death of Ivan Ilyich and the revised version of Mahámátar (2000). Ivan Ilyich is rendered forbidding by the dry voice of Matthew Rose, whose instrument cannot compare to that of the three greatest Boris interpreters on record, Feodor Chaliapin, Alexander Kipnis, and Boris Christoff. The soulful mantra Mahámátar, composed for a film about pilgrims by Werner Herzog, to whom it is dedicated, is a resonant invocation of the Great Mother Mahámátar in Sanskrit, and of the Theotokos (God-bearer) in Greek. Isserlis plays the "vocal line," while Abi Sampa, the UK's marvelous young champion of Sufi and Qawwali music, touches the heart with her vocal improvisations.

Popule meus (2009), which was composed shortly before Tavener's heart attack, may be overly repetitive, but its evocative nature and fabulous use of percussion make it a perfect fit for this wonderful recording. Rendered more eloquent by Isserlis's poignant liner notes, the excellently recorded compilation's sole engineering weakness is the volume disparity between the all-cello tracks and the rest of the album.—Jason Victor Serinus


Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake (excerpts)
Philharmonia Orchestra, Santtu-Matias Rouvali, cond.
Signum SIGCD648 (CD). Jennifer Howells, prod.; Mike Hatch, James Waterhouse, et al., engs.
Performance ***½
Sonics ***½

Any Swan Lake suite is "conductor's choice," but this sequence, from a November 2019 concert, is quixotic. Bypassing the Introduction entirely, the Act I Waltz makes a lovely but tepid start. The Act III Scène, unresolved, jumps to the middle of the Pas de six. We get two "characteristic dances" instead of, say, more of the glorious waltzes. The Finale starts, unprepared, on the big tutti. Even a timpani roll would have helped.

Rouvali, the Philharmonia's incoming director, plays the Waltz buoyantly. The clarinet in the Pas de trois is cheerful and insouciant; the middle section of the cygnets' dance strolls easily. The Pas de six chunk has a nice uplift. The strings are grimly sturdy in the Spanish Dance, and, after a soggy start, the Neapolitan Dance approaches suspended animation. The Pas de deux just gets louder, without filling out.

Rouvali's Luftpausen between sections give both the resonance and the listener's mind time to clear. His unmarked ritards, however, sound arbitrary and artificial; when they recur, as with the basses in the resplendent Dance of the Goblets, they become an irritating mannerism.

The Philharmonia is mostly fine. I loved the crisp string run that launches the Act III Scène, after which the syncopated woodwinds are graceful. Rouvali allows the trumpets to blare, but their later fanfares are trim and focused. The oboe is plaintive in the "signature" Scène, the clarinet liquid in the Pas de deux. The Waltz soloist has a cornettish vibrato.

The recording comes across best in the quieter passages, where the textures are open and clear. The climaxes can be strident.—Stephen Francis Vasta

John Atkinson's picture
Stephen Francis Vasta wrote:
I've never understood the complaints about the Barbican acoustic.

Before I moved to the US, I regularly attended concerts at the Barbican. The problem with the acoustics stems from the fact that there is a short wall behind the rows of seats in front of the orchestra. This gives rise to early reflections that don't suitably enhance the orchestral sound. What you need are the sidewall reflections that you get in "shoebox" concert halls like Boston's Symphony Hall and Vienna's Musikvereinsaal, in which both I have been lucky enough to attend concerts.

But having said that, the best orchestral sound I have ever experienced was in in Dallas's Meyerson Hall, which is not a shoebox.

And my worst orchestral experience, other than in the Barbican, was in LA's Dorothy Chandler Hall, where being in the audience was akin to listening to music that was taking place in another room entirely.

John Atkinson
Technical Editor, Stereophile

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

I was with John on that occasion. It was glorious. Wet for days.

pbarach's picture

I've never been to the Barbican Hall, but I agree with many of the complaints about how it sounds on a lot of recordings. A lot of the LSO Live discs (e.g., the Rostropovich recordings of Shostakovich) have no soundstage depth. Many are also rather dry, although that seems to vary (e.g., some of the LSO Live Haitink Beethoven cycle are on the dry side, while some are not).

As an at-home listener, I don't much care how the music sounds in the hall, but I want good, clear sound in the recording. So while Davies Hall is supposed to have great acoustical variance depending on the seat location, I'm happy to have heard many fine recordings from that venue.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Jack Vad, long-time recording engineer / producer of SFS Media, knows where to place the microphones. Bass in Davies Symphony Hall blooms some rows back from the stage, around rows H - N. That's also where highs are most vibrant and the soundstage, from a center seat, best coheres. Mikes are placed in optimal locations and distances to reproduce this mix.

Jim Austin's picture

A lot of the LSO Live discs (e.g., the Rostropovich recordings of Shostakovich) have no soundstage depth.

One of my more memorable hi-fi listening experiences was via the Wilson Alexandria XLFs driven by VTL amplification in the Rostropovich-conducted Shostakovich Symphony No.5. This was at Innovative Audio here in NYC several years ago. The source was a high-res file, 24/192 I believe. [Edit: I checked: It's 24/96.] I remember the sensation to this day. The soundstage was very close to life-size for a full orchestra; the orchestra sounded like it was on risers, extending back 30-40 feet beyond the plane of the speakers.

I've listened to that recording many times since on more modest systems, with more modest results.

On the No.5 at least, the soundstage depth is there, on the recording. Actual results, of course, depend on equipment, setup, and room acoustics.

Jim Austin, Editor