sat 29/04/2017

Classical CDs Weekly: Elgar, Mahler, Georges Prêtre | reviews, news & interviews

Classical CDs Weekly: Elgar, Mahler, Georges Prêtre

Classical CDs Weekly: Elgar, Mahler, Georges Prêtre

Three hefty box sets, each one a winner

The irrepressible Georges Prêtre


Elgar Remastered (Somm)

Elgar’s compositional career took a bit of a nosedive in his final decades but his sharpness as a practical musician never left him, as is witnessed by the superb series of acoustic and early electrical recordings he conducted in the 1920s and early '30s. There’s a magnificent Warner box collecting the discs he made for HMV, which should be in every home. Elgar’s swift tempi and reluctance to linger are frequently thrilling, dispelling any suggestion that this is crusty music for tweed-clad buffers. This Somm set is also mandatory listening: sound engineer Lani Spahr had access to records from Elgar’s personal library, including many test pressings – which he should have returned to HMV, but held on to. Two turntables were commonly used to cut the wax master discs, so that a backup existed in case of accident. Usually both were fed by the same microphone, though occasionally separate channels were used. So it’s possible to combine different disc recordings made during the same sessions to create a kind of "accidental stereo". Spahr’s sleeve essay, outlining the tortuous process of locating and synchronising discs, is fascinating enough, but the sonic results are jaw-dropping. Try listening to Elgar conducting the Cockaigne Overture. It’s a magnificently sparky performance anyway, and starts in mono. When, near the close, the sound picture shifts into true stereo, the effect is overwhelming. You’re abruptly transported to early 1930s Abbey Road. The same trick is repeated in the Prelude to The Kingdom; the transformation into stereo is the sonic equivalent of Dorothy’s arrival in Oz.

There are four discs in this box, the first two of which contain the stereo tracks. Beatrice Harrison’s version of the Cello Concerto is marvellous, and it’s supplemented by a disc of stereo and mono alternative takes. The March from the second Wand of Youth suite is a highlight. The mono tracks are transferred from Elgar’s test pressings. Unused takes from Menuhin’s pioneering recording of the Violin Concerto are enjoyable, coupled with a composite version of the Symphony No 1. A delicious disc of miniatures seals the deal. Unmissable.

Mahler: The Symphonies Bamberg Symphony Orchestra/Jonathan Nott (Tudor)

British conductor Jonathan Nott’s Mahler cycle was recorded between 2003 and 2011, a mixture of live and studio performances. I could rave about the tasteful packaging and intelligent booklet notes, or the ravishing production values. But it’s the interpretations which count, and it’s still an event to come across recordings which sound so realistic and unforced. Nott’s readings are consistently satisfying, documenting an evolving, deepening relationship between an intelligent, open-minded conductor and a very classy band, playing with a warmth, intensity and sheer beauty of tone that’s frequently dizzying. Among the greatest of these performances is that of Mahler’s vast Third, its vast sweep captured with unerring skill. Has the thunderous horn call ever sounded so arresting, the two scherzos this charming? There’s similar attention paid to No 4, a reading of appealing clarity and sureness of purpose, Mojca Erdmann a fine, fresh-voiced soloist in the last movement.

Symphonies 6 and 7 make a complementary pair, the former’s pessimism answered by a Seventh with plenty of warmth amid the grotesquerie. Nott revels in Mahler’s quirky scoring; horns are magnificent in the first Nachtmusik, matched by guitar and mandolin in the second. There’s a clear-sighted, unambiguously positive Rondo Finale, the Bamberg percussion overwhelming in the closing bars. We get one of the best-recorded Eighths around, the vast forces captured with no sense of strain. The slow orchestral introduction to the second half is gripping, though this is a work which I find myself returning to less and less. More musically rewarding is No 9, in a reading notable for the care expended on the two middle movements: the second affectionate, spry and witty, the Rondo-Burleske as sharp as they come. Strings excel in an expansive closing Adagio, and it’s a huge pity that the set wasn’t completed with Cooke’s realisation of No 10. No conductor nails all these symphonies – I was less moved by Nott’s Resurrection - but he gets so much right elsewhere. These are performances to live with, wonderfully played and sensationally recorded. Go on – treat yourself.

Georges Prêtre: The Symphonic Recordings (Warner)

It’s alarming that a musician’s career can be anthologised in a small cardboard box costing a pittance, but we live in strange times. Warner Music’s acquisition of EMI means that they’ve got a vast back catalogue to dip into, and here we get 17 CDs celebrating the French conductor Georges Prêtre. Born in 1924, he’s still very much alive. Prêtre’s teachers included Duruflé and Messiaen, and he was close to Dutilleux, Poulenc and Milhaud; unsurprisingly he’s been viewed as a conductor of French music par excellence. Dipping into this set is a hugely enjoyable experience, and it’s not to disparage Prêtre’s approach to say that the overwhelming impression is of warmth, affection and humour. The greatest performances here are really special: life-enhancing accounts of Poulenc’s Les Animaux modèles and L’Histoire de Babar, with narration in both English and French by a fruity Peter Ustinov. A pungent, smoky account of Milhaud’s La Création du monde is a winner, as is a disc of Roussel ballet suites. The earliest recordings have a special authority, letting us hear very French orchestral sonorities.

Prêtre’s versatility shines through; he’s quoted in the booklet as saying that “I’m happy to conduct anything today, except very modern music.” There are some interesting discoveries to be made: a 19th-century piano concerto by one Alexis de Castillon is appealing. And few readers will have encountered anything by Marcel Landowski, three of whose symphonies are included. They’re fascinating discoveries, Landowski’s arresting ear for colour more striking than the music’s lack of depth. There’s a lovely disc of Vincent d’Indy, and two versions of Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony. Orchestral playing isn’t always immaculate, and not even Prêtre and the 1960s Philharmonia can redeem Shostakovich’s ghastly 12th Symphony, but there are far more hits than misses. An irresistible bargain.

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