Fire and passion
Classical recording gems of 2018, by RICHARD OSBORNE
It’s surprising what you find when you knock down a wall. In Daniel Barenboim’s case, it was the Staatskapelle Berlin, resident orchestra of the Berlin State Opera, which he took over after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. ‘It was like finding a wonderful collection of antique furniture’, he has said. ‘There was a thick layer of dust over everything but the workmanship was superb.’ After 25 years of further nurture and care, Barenboim has recorded the four Brahms
Symphonies with the orchestra, evincing sounds the like of which have probably not been heard in Berlin since Furtwängler’s day. This is not sharp-elbowed Brahms in the modern style. Spaciously conceived, these performances, like the music itself, embody deeper memories and scan larger horizons (Deutsche Grammophon 4CD 4835251 £23).
Barenboim’s great contemporary, the Latvian-born music director of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Mariss Jansons, turned 75 this year. His coupling of Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances with the composer’s Edgar Allan Poe-inspired, cradle-to-grave choral masterpiece, The Bells, makes for mesmerising listening (BR Klassik 900154 £11).
It’s rare nowadays to find a record of Beethoven piano sonatas to set alongside classic recordings by pianists such as Solomon, Serkin, Kempff, and Arrau. The drought is broken, however, by Murray Perahia’s spiritually luminous and technically superb traversal of the
Hammerklavier and Moonlight sonatas (Deutsche Grammophon 479 8353 £12.50).
There are those who think the King’s Singers insufferably smug. In which case, let the occasion of their 50th anniversary allow us to stand back and wonder at the verve of their singing, their hair’s-breadth timing, their flawless intonation, and the astonishing catholicity of their repertory. The anniversary has produced two retrospectives. Sony’s 11-CD set of the complete RCA recordings has a wide range of popular repertory, ranging from Gilbert and Sullivan to close harmony treatments of themes from the movies. But for real musical distinction (at an absurdly low price) I would commend the 8-CD box Madrigals and Songs from the Renaissance, an endlessly absorbing Cook’s tour through Britain, Italy, Spain and France during European music’s first golden age (Warner Classics 9029570282 £16.60).
Semiramide, Rossini’s last and grandest opera for the Italian stage, is a masterpiece that’s rarely played complete. Even the acclaimed 2016 Prom performance was cut. Not so the superb studio recordingwhich Opera Rara made at the time. With a strong cast, and conducting by Sir Mark Elder that is as theatrically thrilling as it is architecturally assured, it’s unlikely to be surpassed (Opera Rara 9293800572 £45).
Look out, too, for a new and quintessentially French account of Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles, recorded in Lille under the direction of Alexandre Bloch. The famous Pearl Fishers duet comes early. But this limpidly beautiful and supremely singable opera – a tale of Sinhalese deep-sea divers and the Brahmin priestess who holds them in thrall – is no one-hit wonder (Pentatone 2CD PTC5186685 £20).
‘It is clarity that reveals depth to us,’ wrote French aphorist Vauvenargues. That’s certainly the case with a lovely record of (mainly) late Debussy chamber music from the lavishly gifted Capuçon brothers and their friends. The highlight is the extraordinary Sonata for flute, viola and harp, but the entire disc is rich in wonder (Erato 9029577396 £12.75).
Debussy will survive this year’s centenary celebrations but Dame Ethel Smyth may find it harder to retain the loyalty of the new friends this year’s suffragist shenanigans may have thrust upon her. All the more reason, then, to secure a copy of a famous recording of her Cornish-inspired masterpiece The Wreckers – a template for Britten’s
Peter Grimes if ever there was one – which Retrospect Opera has recently reissued (2CD RO004 £17.95).
Debussy died in 1918, the year the great Swedish film-maker Ingmar Bergman was born. I say film-maker, but Bergman was equally distinguished as a theatre and opera director, a fact that’s been handsomely recognised by the British Film Institute’s technically superb reissue of Bergman’s legendary 1975 television film of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. What the Flute needs, said Bergman, is ‘young fire, young passion, young playfulness’. They’re qualities this most miraculous of operatic reimaginings has in spades. If you need a televisual Christmas treat, this is it. (Dual Format DVD video and Blu-ray BFIB1299 £19.99). Note: retail prices may vary
From the top: Daniel Barenboim, Mariss Jansons, Claude Debussy