wed 16/10/2019

Classical CDs Weekly: Beethoven, Shostakovich, Tommy Smith | reviews, news & interviews

Classical CDs Weekly: Beethoven, Shostakovich, Tommy Smith

Classical CDs Weekly: Beethoven, Shostakovich, Tommy Smith

German symphonies, Russian chamber music and Scottish history through the ears of a saxophonist

Lan Shui and the Copenhagen Philharmonic

Beethoven: Symphonies 5-8 Copenhagen Philharmonic Orchestra/Lan Shui (Orchid)

Lively speeds which never sound hurried. Sparky, well-articulated playing, the period brass adding a distinctive colour. Crisp, clear, recording. All present. One of this job’s many pleasures is coming across a disc from an unexpected source which confounds expectations. And here’s Volume 2 of a Beethoven cycle from an orchestra and conductor I’d never heard of. It’s not damning with faint praise to say that I couldn’t believe how good this set is, and for a second I wondered whether I was the victim of a Joyce Hatto-style set-up. These discs are an utter joy, and spot comparisons with other, better-known recordings confirm that Lan Shui’s Copenhagen players deserve to be up there with the best. Their performances are closest in spirit to Paavo Järvi’s superb RCA cycle, though with a smidgeon more impishness and sheer fun. No.5’s pleasures are as much musical as dramatic, the last movement’s trombones making a superb impact. This Pastoral is more invigorating trot than flaccid plod, with a startling, viscerally exciting storm sequence.

Things get better still with Symphonies 7 and 8. Spectacular horns enliven the former’s first movement, and the Allegretto lacks nothing in solemnity. No. 8 breezes along, the goofy finale’s closing minutes pure magic. I bought the first volume of this cycle shortly after listening to this one. It’s just as enjoyable, with an Eroica that’s among the best I’ve heard. Symphony No. 9 will complete the set next year. Life-enhancing stuff. The sleeve art is appealing. Late August can be a gloomy time – the nights are already drawing in and the holiday season is almost over. Cheer yourself up. Buy this.

Shostakovich: Piano Trios 1 and 2, Viola Sonata Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano), with Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay (violin), Mats Lidström (cello), Ada Meinich (viola) (Decca)

This anthology spans Shostakovich’s entire career, and the performances are led by a musician who had met the composer on several occasions. Vladimir Ashkenazy recalls playing the Piano Trio No.2 to Shostakovich as a student: “He was very sweet. But he didn't make any comment. Later I found out that this wasn't very good. It probably meant he didn't like our interpretation too much!” That Ashkenazy in his late seventies is still playing, conducting and recording is a cause for quiet celebration. This reading of the weighty Piano Trio No.2 isn’t the angriest or most savage, but it’s intensely affecting, aided by three string players with whom Ashkenazy has recorded before. The trio’s glacial opening is chilling here, Ashkenazy wisely remaining in the shadows, and his subdued, plain delivery of the slow movement’s bell-like chords reminds us to concentrate on the string lines. Only at the start of the finale does the tension drop, the klezmer theme played a little too politely – I would have liked a bit more ferocity from cellist Mats Lidström. There’s not enough horror, though the work’s desolate close is beautifully done. How different this is to Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 1, a one-movement work written in 1923. Published posthumously, it’s a real find. All the composer’s stylistic tics are present, the bittersweet first theme among the most delectable things he wrote. Marvellous stuff, despite its short running time.

Shostakovich’s Viola Sonata was written in the final weeks of his life. Eloquent, spare music, its case is winningly made by violist Ada Meinich. She and Ashkenazy are superbly poker-faced in the last of the composer’s throwaway scherzos. The closing Adagio is extraordinary, directly quoting Beethoven and several of Shostakovich’s earlier works. Especially poignant is the reappearance of the main theme from the early Suite for Two Pianos. The ending is a heartbreaker: you’ll need a several doses of Copenhagen Beethoven to overcome its effects. Decca’s cover photo is a winner, showing the composer sneaking a cigarette on the night train from Moscow to Leningrad.

Tommy Smith: Modern Jacobite Tommy Smith (saxophone), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Clark Rundell (Spartacus Records)

Modern Jacobite is an impressive achievement. A 30-minute work for saxophone and large symphony orchestra, it’s not a jazz soloist’s noodlings transcribed and arranged by a third party: Tommy Smith took time off to study orchestration and composition in the early 1990s and audibly knows what he’s doing. The work features Smith’s saxophone as storyteller, narrating three movements loosely inspired by events in the failed Jacobite rising: the final section, ‘1745’, depicts the Jacobites’ crushing defeat at Culloden. It’s not all gloom. Smith’s influences (particularly Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky) are readily apparent, and he shares with them the ability to orchestrate with utter clarity and transparency – there’s a heartstoppingly beautiful passage four minutes or so into the second movement. And what a fantastic ending, a giddily exciting mixture of Stravinsky and Duke Ellington.

Smith couples the work with six of Chick Corea’s Children’s Songs, linked by improvisations and three ‘reimaginings’ of Corea’s childhood memoirs. As a sequence it flows very nicely – Smith’s improvisations are never too indulgent and he treats Corea’s appealing, artless melodies with real warmth. Only Smith’s unexpected take on Rachmaninov’s Vocalise doesn’t hit home. His rhythmic flexibility feels at odds with Clark Rundell’s well-behaved BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, and there’s a distinct whiff of cheese. A minor gripe – everything else is fantastically realised, in punchy, atmospheric sound.

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