mon 20/05/2024

Classical CDs Weekly: Tchaikovsky, Fred Hersch, Sheku Kanneh-Mason | reviews, news & interviews

Classical CDs Weekly: Tchaikovsky, Fred Hersch, Sheku Kanneh-Mason

Classical CDs Weekly: Tchaikovsky, Fred Hersch, Sheku Kanneh-Mason

Electrifying orchestral playing from the Urals, a jazz musician's classical side, and a brilliant young cellist

Smell the smoke: Teodor Currentzis and MusicAeternaAnton Zavjyalov

Currentzis's TchaikovskyTchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 MusicAeterna/Teodor Currentzis (Sony)

There's a left field vintage recording of Tchaikovsky's Pathétique conducted by Otto Klemperer, a reading totally devoid of hysteria, complete with a laughably slow third movement march. It's interesting… and not an experience you’re desperate to repeat. But well worth dipping into before sampling this astonishing new Russian version – it's like moving from warm porridge to a bowl of fiery chilli. Everything's exactly as it should be, and more, helped by an interventionist production style which doesn’t aim to reproduce what you’d hear in a concert hall, but which still serves the music wondrously well. I was smitten by Teodor Currentzis’s very vocal phrasing of the nervy first subject, blossoming into a seductive, smoochy second theme. The clarinet solos before the development are implausibly soft, so the loud crash is a shocker. It gets better still, with lower strings from MusicAeterna – the ensemble was founded in 2004 in Novosibirsk by Currentzis, and has been the resident orchestra at Perm Opera since 2011 – digging in with alarming force. You can smell the smoke. Vladimir Kishchenko’s thunderous bass trombone pedal would be amusing taken out of context, but Currentzis makes it sound inevitable. Magnificent stuff.

The conductor’s sleeve note is characteristically discursive, but there's a lot of sense in what Currentzis says about the work, comparing the waltz’s timpani strokes to heartbeats, and describing the third movement’s exuberance as “a magnificent feeling of joy”, as felt by someone who knows the end is near. Which, when it comes, is alarmingly vivid, the orchestra’s stopped horns buzzing like angry bees. There's no coupling, but there's no emotional space for one. Exceptionally good, and proof that exciting recordings of standard repertoire are still being made. Sony have also released a vinyl edition. Stereo separation is really vivid. And putting just the first movement on Side 1 means that the noisier climaxes don’t feel unduly squished, though Tchaikovsky's ppppp passages are inevitably accompanied by a hint of crackle if you turn the volume up. I'm not complaining – this is one of the most exciting orchestral releases I've heard in months.

Eunbi KImA House of Many Rooms - New Concert Music by Fred Hersch Eunbi Kim (piano) (Albany Records)

Fred Hersch isn't a familiar name in the UK, but that shouldn't dissuade the curious from investigating his music. He's an American jazz pianist and composer, and this anthology collects some of his "straight", non-improvised works. They're marvellous. Hirsch's jazz sympathies are often evident, but these aren't vacuous noodlings. Take his extended Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky, a 20-minute sequence based on the sinuous oboe theme which opens the 4th Symphony’s slow movement. Allusions to Bach, Beethoven, Prokofiev, jazz and ragtime all pop up, and Hersch's ability to switch moods is dizzying: pianist Eunbi Kim recalls him telling her to play each variation as if she was entering a different room (hence the album’s title). The expansive final variation gives the second half of Tchaikovsky's theme some pleasingly fruity harmonies, before a stern coda. It’s really good – though a pity that the individual variations aren't indexed.

The remaining works are miniatures, but they're equally well-wrought. My favourites are Hersch's Little Midnight Nocturne, a meltingly beautiful response to Thelonious Monk’s Round Midnight, and a brief Satiesque prelude which gets better with each rehearing. Kim recorded these pieces under Hersch's supervision and it shows: her playing oozes warmth and affection, her rubato just subtle enough to hint at his jazz roots. A low-key treat; my only gripe being that it’s too short at just over 44 minutes.

Sheku Kanneh-MasonSheku Kanneh-Mason: Inspiration (Decca)

This is marketed as a disc with mass appeal and contains several slices of cheese. But young cellist (and BBC prizewinner) Sheku Kanneh-Mason is a phenomenal talent, and it's great that a work as nervy and uncompromising as Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No. 1 is reaching a wide audience. I was initially a little underwhelmed by this performance of Kanneh-Mason’s signature piece: the first movement's voltage a little low in the opening stages. Mirga Gražinte-Tyla’s acerbic CBSO wind players initially sound more energised, but the two parties do soon coalesce: the raucous cadenza with solo horn is superb and the slow movement chills. The concerto’s closing pages have an ominous weight: there's no hint of triumph despite the major key final chord. How can a mere teenager tackle such a tricky work with so much intelligence and technique?

The rest of the disc is fluffier fare, but it's still recommendable, Gražinte-Tyla providing sympathetic support in a schmaltzy movement taken from Shostakovich's The Gadfly film score. Several of the pieces are accompanied by the CBSO’s cello section, including brilliant versions of two Pablo Casals numbers. Saint-Saens’ The Swan sounds too murky without piano. Arrangements of iconic Bob Marley and Leonard Cohen songs provide a fun coda.


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