sat 18/05/2024

Classical CDs Weekly: Martinů, Prokofiev, Sullivan | reviews, news & interviews

Classical CDs Weekly: Martinů, Prokofiev, Sullivan

Classical CDs Weekly: Martinů, Prokofiev, Sullivan

20th century violin music, a Russian fairytale in a Scots makeover and an exhumed Victorian oratorio

The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra play Prokofiev


Martinu Violin musicMartinů: The Complete Music for Violin and Orchestra Bohuslav Matoušek (violin), Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Christopher Hogwood (Hyperion)

You can't overdose on Martinů: four reissued discs of concertante music for violin and orchestra might sound heavy going but I challenge anyone to get bored. There's an embarrassment of riches here, most of it seldom heard in the UK. You could do worse than start with the sublime Rhapsody-Concerto, soloist Bohuslav Matoušek switching to viola. Martinů characterised his lyrical late period as marking a shift from “geometry to fantasy”, and here the motor rhythms are less prominent while the melodies soar. It's brilliantly performed here, the introspective coda as emotionally charged as any on disc. The two ‘straight’ violin concertos date from 1933 and 1943 respectively. The score of the earlier work was lost and only resurfaced in the late 1960s. No 2 is more striking, its long opening movement containing a superb cantabile melody.

The great Fritz Kreisler commissioned Martinů’s Czech Rhapsody but never performed it. It's heard here in an idiomatic arrangement by Jirí Teml, ably recreating Martinů's orchestral luminosity. The brittle Concerto da camera was written in 1941 for Paul Sacher’s Basel Chamber Orchestra. Karel Košárek is the obbligato pianist, teaming up with Matoušek again in an inexplicably neglected Concerto for violin, piano and orchestra. Two versions of the Suite Concertante appear, the second so radically revised that it's effectively a different piece. Plus a concerto for two violins and one for flute, violin and orchestra. You can't imagine this repertoire being handled with more care and affection. The late Christopher Hogwood secures exquisite playing from the Czech Philharmonic and Hyperion's engineering glows. Beautiful.

Scottish Jazz PeterProkofiev: Peter and the Wolf Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, featuring Tam Dean Burn (narrator) and Makoto Ozone (piano) (Spartacus Records)

This imaginative reworking of the Prokofiev classic won't be for everyone, but it had me whooping with delight. Peter and the Wolf usually runs for around 25 minutes, but poet Liz Lochhead’s revised text extends the piece to over an hour. There's also the matter of the score. You won't find bassoons, horns or oboe here, Tommy Smith’s brilliant jazz orchestra transcription substituting baritone sax, trombones and muted trumpet. Peter’s theme is played by pianist Makoto Ozone, whose miraculous take on Mozart’s Jeunehomme concerto should be in every home. The playing of the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra is superb, this live recording carrying an electric charge. Tam Dean Burn’s Scots narration needs to be heard, if only to hear him utter the single syllable “oot”. Here he's an older Peter looking back on his adventures (“I wasnae a bad boay… Ah was full o devilment…”). Who, “the meenit I've feenished ma porridge,” rushes outside against his grandfather’s advice.

Prokofiev's taut tale becomes a verbose shaggy dog story, though delivered with such panache that it's churlish to complain. The duck survives, regurgitated after the wolf’s capture to suitably graphic sound effects. There's a sweet postscript, Peter meeting the wolf in the zoo and offering to release him. One surprise is how nifty the themes sound played with a swing, though given their melodic potency it shouldn't be a surprise. Smith’s reorchestration is pretty faithful to the score’s spirit, and one imagines that Prokofiev would have approved. Smartly presented, with appealing artwork to boot.

Sullivan Light LifeSullivan: The Light of the World BBC Concert Orchestra, BBC Symphony Chorus/John Andrews (Dutton Epoch)

Arthur Sullivan will always be remembered as one half of a double act, whose popular success overshadowed everything he composed outside his partnership with W. S. Gilbert. Martin Yates argues in his booklet note that pieces like the The Light of the World have suffered thanks to Victorian critics’ doubts about the work’s religious sincerity, mistrusting a composer seen as a mere froth peddler. We know better now, thankfully. Sullivan knew his musical onions, and this large scale work is worth exhumation: a well-upholstered oratorio with relatively few saggy bits. Sullivan’s selected biblical texts aim “to set forth the Human aspect of the Life of Our Lord on earth.” This Jesus sings his words in the first person, avoiding the need for a narrator. As sung by baritone Ben McAteer, he's an engaging, persuasive charmer with impeccable diction, Sullivan accompanying his solos with an ‘inner-orchestra’ of soft winds and lower strings. We get the Nativity and a smattering of miracles before Jesus’s arrival in Jerusalem and the crucifixion.

The orchestral writing is astonishingly assured. Delectable moments abound, like the extended instrumental introduction to “Weep Ye Not for the Dead” in the first part, or the overture to the Jerusalem sequence. The BBC Symphony Chorus acquit themselves nicely, though the most ear-tickling choral moment is provided by a superbly-drilled children's choir from Derbyshire. John Andrews leads a responsive BBC Concert Orchestra, and the recorded sound is glorious.

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