Music Reviews - AM’s Favourite Recent Classical SACDs

      Date posted: May 14, 2008


English Muffins

Britannia - Elgar: Pomp and Circumstances Marches 1 & 4; Davies: An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise; Turnage: Three Screaming Popes; Britten: Sinfonia da Requiem; MacMillan: Britannia - Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Donald Runnicles TELARC SACD-60677 Hybrid Surround [71:48]

Britten/Elgar - Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes; The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra; Engima Variations - Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Paavo Berglund TELARC SACD-60660 Hybrid Surround

Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 5; Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis; Serenade To Music - Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Chorus, Robert Spano TELARC SACD-60676 Hybrid Surround

These 3 discs could be said to be a very broad-ranging time-capsule, a sample of 20th Century British music, ranging from the earlier in Elgar to the immediate in MacMillan and Turnage, with Vaughan Williiams and Britten in between. And covering a broad range of time, style, and musical genre along the way is Peter Maxwell-Davies’ delightful and even more dynamic An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise. This is the piece I’m playing for SACD surround demos these days, since it has everything: drama, depth, huge dynamics, dance, and even a bagpipe (played by a Canadian, Pictou County NS maritimer Scott Long).

And this is just one reason for making Britannia my Classical Disc of the Year for 2007. The two Elgar marches bookend this album, with much contrasting music in between, all of it very good as well as multi-hued. The Britten has been one of my favourite British works for decades, especially in the fabulously atmospheric Previn/LSO performance (EMI ASD 3154), which LP also contains the Four Sea Interludes, to which I’ll return to below in talking about the Cincinnati disc. Here the Sinfonia da Requiem is more acrobatic than Previn’s reading with more of the frenzy and chaos of war reflected.
Speaking of chaos, Three Screaming Popes by Mark-Anthony Turnage is based on a typically terrifying Francis Bacon triptych, and has some great brass playing, but seems definitely outside the pastoral traditions of much of the rest of this collection. Britannia, the title work, however, brings us back into that mainstream, starting with a lively jig, and then plays with “patriotic themes” , quoting Elgar and Arne along the merry way through reels, Cockney drinking songs, and a “hazy Celtic modality”, according to the album notes by Nick Jones. Composer James MacMillan is a Scottish conductor and musician. I like this piece very much, too.

The two Elgar Pomp and Circumstance marches here are not my favourite music by this composer, but we get closer to some of that in the Cincinnati disc, conducted by Paavo Jarvi with the Enigma Variations, familiar as they are. Lovingly played in the somewhat mellow ambiance of the city’s Music Hall, they are given a drama and power in this performance that is veddy English, if I may say so, even to the organ pedal in the conclusion. A lighter note perhaps, but with a sometimes heavier hand is heard in the Britten Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. By this, I mean that Jarvi plays it for the big instruments, the basses, percussion and brass winning the day. I may have quoted this before, but a musician friend once referred to the section behind him in the orchestra as, “a bunch of brassholes”. This performance made me think of that. Britten’s own recording (LP, Decca/London Jubilee 417-509) has a little more reserve, so to speak, and a more jolly sensibility, though nowhere near the sonic purity heard from the SACD reviewed here. However, the Telarc production tram have given all the instrumental profiles their own tracks, 20 in all, great for those intended listeners, the young people (That’s the Harpie playing, kids!)

The Four Sea Interludes by Benjamin Britten are among my favourite pieces of music, and I have recordings by Previn and Giulini, the former coupled with the Sinfonia, and the latter with the Guide (LP, Angel/EMI S 36215). Lyrical as the Giulini performance with the Philharmonia is, I keep coming back to that Previn disc, with its appropriate Peter Grimes foreboding. Jarvi’s approach is more in this vein, with an added dollop of dynamics of the sort you can only achieve in multichannel SACD or equivalent format. Maybe this music needs a cooler Northern sensibility. I will listen to this fabulous sounding version often.

Romantic Excess

Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27 - Cincinnati Symphony, Paavo Jarvi Telarc SACD 60670 Hybrid Surround

Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5, Op. 100, in B-flat Major; Lieutenant Kije Suite, Op. 60 Cincinnati Symphony, Paavo Jarvi Telarc SACD-60683 Hybrid Surround

More of the prolific Jarvi here, who must conduct in the shower, too. The Rachmaninoff is suitably romantic and dynamic, with a lot of rubato in the ebb and flow of mad Russian’s music, and while Prokofiev may not be called a romantic so much as classicist, he comes closest to the former in his 5th. Both are excellent performances in utterly superb and enveloping sound. I think some of the greatest successes of the Telarc engineering team have occurred in the Atlanta and Cincinnati halls. And I must say, I’ve come to like the idea of moving my listening perspective (my seat, so to speak) backwards and forward by adjusting the surround channels relative to the front 3-speaker spread. With the Rachmaninoff, I increased the surrounds to capture more of the hall, and move a few rows back from all those searing strings and blaring brass. This also helped bring out the many marvellous melodies in this treacly and often thumpy score.

Oh, and a note to the album annotators: Why Rachmaninoff on the one disc, and Prokofiev on the other? Is it modern usage being observed? On many of my older LP recordings of these composers’ works I see quite a bit of Prokofieff or Rachmaninov being used. Can’t say I’ve got a Cyrillic dictionary to resolve this question, however, if indeed it would.

To the 2nd Symphony are added as tonic a light and lively Scherzo, and a pair of Dances from Aleko, the Women’s Dance and Men’s Dance, I suppose to help listeners wake up from all that romantic angst, disentagle themselves from each other, and get mobile again. Does that qualify as Paavo’s little musical joke?
Jarvi's Rachmaninov & Prokofiev
Speaking of coupling, the Prokofiev(ff), his 5th, is joined by the ever-popular Kije Suite, the fanciful exploits of the imaginary officer on the other disc. Both performances are brisk, but not hurried, and well thought out. Each features some great brass playing on these works noted for fabulous brass writing, and the woodwinds on the Kije aren’t bad, either. In the 5th we hear an often dark sound at the beginning, tubas and bass trombones, underscored by the huge bass drum, but in the second movement the pace is brisk and clean, leading to the immense dynamics and colours of the following one. It’s a very live sound that keeps you on seat edge, and the finale is hugely powerful, while free of the bombast heard in many performances of this popular symphony. I think it’s one of the best I’ve ever heard, and easily the best recorded, finally offering the true dynamics of a live performance.

The Kije follows suite, so to speak, offering an even greater sense of depth from all the brass and woodwind soloists heard back in, and even behind, the orchestra. To hear these with no noise or sonic blurring is a joy, and makes me prefer this recording even to the famous Reiner Living Stereo one, though I will confess to not having heard it in the latest 3-channel SACD reissue. And this leads me to observe further that the true centre channel in these recordings has much to do with that incredibly natural listen-through quality of these and other recent Telarc SACDs, of which I believe many are instant classic recordings on all fronts, worthy successors to the great RCAs and Mercurys, not to forget those from Decca and EMI.

Andrew Marshall

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