sat 20/07/2019

Classical CDs Weekly: Dvořák, Xiayin Wang, Simon Thacker's Svara Kanti | reviews, news & interviews

Classical CDs Weekly: Dvořák, Xiayin Wang, Simon Thacker's Svara Kanti

Classical CDs Weekly: Dvořák, Xiayin Wang, Simon Thacker's Svara Kanti

Sublime cello playing, 20th-century piano concertos and an engaging blend of Western and Indian classical music

Steven IsserlisSatoshi Aoyagi

 

Dvořák: Cello Concertos Steven Isserlis (cello), Mahler Chamber Orchestra/Daniel Harding (Hyperion)

How wonderful to hear a familiar work sounding so fresh and potent. Steven Isserlis's Dvořák anthology is revelatory, in so many ways. There's the sumptious orchestral playing from Daniel Harding's Mahler Chamber Orchestra. It's warm, rich, but never overwhelms the solo line, and Dvořák's wind and brass writing has rarely sounded more clean and clear. I'm thinking of the nostalgic horn solo which steals into the B minor concerto's first movement, or the quiet trumpets in the same work's heart-stopping coda. The tutti passages are sublime. Isserlis is terrific – blending security with spontaneity, his quiet playing so eloquent. You're drawn in as soon as he makes that arresting first entry. A bit like listening to a cantankerous grandparent spinning a compelling yarn; within minutes you're gripped, until you find yourself in tears. And this Hyperion recording could carry a health warning. This concerto is already a nostalgic, emotionally-charged piece, written during Dvořák's spell in New York. Isserlis suggests that the B minor key signature was a response to the composer's visit to Niagara Falls – Dvořák listened, spellbound, for several minutes, declaring that “Lord God, this will become a symphony in B minor.” The late inclusion of a quote from a song beloved by his recently deceased sister-in-law works magnificently, adding a bittersweet aftertaste to what would otherwise be a showy close. I've rarely been so moved by a recording. Don't listen to this while driving, in other words. Isserlis includes as a bonus an orchestral arrangement of the song, and we also get the concerto's original, more abrupt ending. Which works well enough, but the revised version carries so much more weight.

The coupling is Dvořák's youthful Cello Concerto in A. It was never fully scored and the manuscript disappeared for many years. An idiomatic orchestration of this hour-long piece was made in the 1970s, but Isserlis has chosen a heavily cut 1920s realisation by Günter Raphael. It's completely charming but decidedly unmemorable; Raphael's orchestral polish is occasionally at odds with the plainness of Dvořák's material. Isserlis's sleeve notes are fun, and Hyperion's sound is suitably rich.

American Piano Concertos Xiayin Wang (piano), Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Peter Oundjian (Chandos)

Samuel Barber's ubiquitous Adagio for Strings still overshadows just about everything else he wrote. The lyrical Violin Concerto is almost a repertoire standard, but we don't often get to hear much else. So it's good to become acquainted with his thorny Piano Concerto, a late work first performed in 1962. At first you'd be hard pressed to identify anything noticeably American about the work. This is a mighty roar of a piece, inviting comparism with earlier concertos by Bartók and Prokofiev. It's undeniably impressive – virtuosic, and richly, romantically scored, but it fails to leave a lasting impression. The first movement oozes noirish ambience and Barber's pile-driving rhythms in the final Allegro molto are magnificent. But the themes just aren't distinct enough, and you finish the work feeling battered and a little exhausted. It's with some relief that you turn to Copland's 1926 Piano Concerto – a compact marvel which feels much grander than its 15-minute time frame. There's already a brilliant recording by Garrick Ohlsson and Michael Tilson Thomas, but Xiayan Wang's is just as good. What a bold opening this is – Copland's priapic brass fanfare giving way to a few minutes of shimmering, chrome-plated splendour. Wait until your neighbours are out and play it really, really loud. I've still not tired of it. The poor soloist can't really compete. Wang's quiet, polytonal ruminations are spellbinding, the music more moody nocturne than conventional first movement. It's followed by a raucous finale, Copland's skilful use of jazz and ragtime pointing ahead to works like Rodeo and El Salon Mexico. At several points the music comes close to chaotic breakdown, before the return of that magnificent opening idea. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra play with fearless swagger under their new music director Peter Oundjian.

Gershwin's Concerto in F completes the programme. Wang and Oundjian don't succeed in papering over all the cracks – the first movement invariably feels like a succession of brilliant ideas clumsily stitched together. But the tunes are so good, you're inclined to forgive. There's a fabulous swooning trumpet solo in the central movement, and Wang's flowing tempo avoids any indulgence. Her Allegro agitato zips along nicely. All highly enjoyable – the Copland and Gershwin works receive performances as good as any around, and the Barber remains a fascinating curio.

Simon Thacker's Svara Kanti: Rakshasa (Slap the Moon)

Terry Riley's In C still stands up as a classic of 1960s minimalism. Surprising to read that its composer is alive and well - Riley's 2012 SwarAmant is one of the highlights of this eclectic, intelligent disc. Scottish guitarist Simon Thacker is smart enough to realise that there's more to combining Indian and western classical music than playing a few modal scales accompanied by tabla thwacks. Riley's piece, economically scored for guitar, violin and tabla, is marvellous. The occasional lurches into flamenco don't disconcert, and Jacqueline Shave's rapid switches between bowed lines and rapid pizzicati are wonderfully realised. All bound together by Sarvar Sabri's tabla, unfazed by Riley's fiendish rhythmic demands. Crossover discs fail when the diverse ingredients get watered down, resulting in an insipid soup. You don't find that here; Nigel Osborne's bold The Five Elements never feels compromised, made more alluring by Japjit Kaur's impeccable, idiomatic vocal line.

Shirish Korde's Anusvara - 6th Prism is a sublime meditation. Thacker's Multani sustains its fiendish 15/16 rhythm with unerring ease, and his reimaginings of Punjabi folksongs are beautifully done, Kaur's vocals adding extra authenticity. Thacker's exuberant Rakshasa closes the disc, its fancy production tricks never sounding gimmicky.

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