CD reviews: Elgar | Nielsen | Debussy | Grieg

Elgar | Nielsen | Debussy | Grieg

Elgar: In the South; Introduction and Allegro; Sospiri; Enigma Variations
Küchl Quartet/Vienna Philharmonic/Gardiner
(Deutsche Grammophon) *****

There is something wonderfully cathartic about these performances. It has often been observed that had Elgar been born a German he would have become Richard Strauss, and that is exactly the line that John Eliot Gardiner and the Vienna Philharmonic take here. The concert overture In the South swaggers and glitters like a Strauss tone poem. The orchestral sound is wonderful, with each detail pricked and tense in a way that is revelatory, and instantly lifts the piece out of the ghetto of English music. Seen in this light, Sospiri becomes an Adagio in the Mahlerian tradition, and the Enigma Variations a sequence of intensely characterised portraits. Only the Introduction and Allegro for strings disappoints, because for once the phrasing is too severe and too square cut.

Nielsen: Symphonies Nos 1 & 6
BBC Scottish Symphony/Vanska
(BIS) ***

After establishing himself as the foremost Sibelius interpreter or our time, the conductor Osmo Vanska now turns his attention to the symphonies of the Finn's great Danish contemporary. Vanska is embarking on this cycle with the BBC Scottish Symphony rather than the Lahti orchestra with whom he recorded so much of his Sibelius survey for BIS, and these performances of the first and last of the symphonies show what a refined and responsive band it is. Vanska's qualities as a Nielsen interpreter are best demonstrated in his account of the always problematic and elusive Sixth, its pared-down, raw textures given real potency. The First is less convincing, for he moulds and indulges its romanticism to the extent that the symphonic impetus is sometimes lost.

Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande
Von Otter/Holzmair/Naouri/Orchestre National de France/ Haitink
(Naive, 3 CDs) ***

A cast of native French singers is always an advantage in an opera that depends so intimately on the subtleties of the language's prosody, and all but two of the cast in this recording, taken from concert performances in the Théatre des Champs Elysées two years ago this week, are the genuine article. Unfortunately the exceptions are the title roles - Anne Sofie von Otter, elevated to a soprano to sing Mélisande, and the Austrian baritone Wolfgang Holzmair. Both are highly discriminating artists, and Von Otter's handling of the text is always admirable. But she never really conveys the mysterious vulnerability of the character, while Holzmair is a rather detached Pelléas. Laurent Naouri's Golaud is strong and forthright. Bernard Haitink has always been a first-rate, responsive Debussy conductor, and his careful weighting and unfolding of the score is perhaps the best reason for sampling this set.

Grieg: Lyric Pieces
Leif Ove Andsnes
(EMI) ***

The Norwegian Andsnes plays Grieg's own piano, an 1892 Steinway, recorded in the composer's home, for this mix-and-match recital of a selection of miniatures. Those who admire Andnes's direct, unfussy musicianship and immaculate technique will find a great deal to enjoy here, even if the performances do not quite reach the level of exquisite refinement to be found, for instance, in Emil Gilels's classic accounts. More significantly it is the piano itself that takes the edge off everything: there's no use pretending that the sound is as full or crisp as it would be from a modern instrument - Andsnes often struggles to pedal cleanly, for instance - and in CD terms that is a high price to pay for a bit of sentimental, historical interest.


Reviews by Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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