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14 More High-Resolution Stereo Download Reviews


Published on June 13, 2012

14 More High-Resolution Stereo Download Reviews

MAHLER:  Symphony No. 8 – Heather Harper soprano I (Magna Peccatrix);  Lucia Popp soprano II (Una Poenitentium);  Arleen Auger soprano III (Mater Gloriosa);  Yvonne Minton contralto I (Mulier Samaritana);  Helen Watts contralto II (Maria Aegyptiaca);  René Kollo tenor (Doctor Marianus);   John Shirley-Quirk baritone (Pater Ecstaticus);  Martti Talvela bass (Pater Profundus) /Vienna Staatsopernchor /Vienna Singverein /Vienna Sängerknaben /Chicago Sym. Orch./  Sir Georg Solti – Decca 24/96 download UNI 005 – 80:00 ****:

Recorded in the Sofiensaal, Vienna during August and September 1971,  Sir Georg Solti’s orchestra, the Chicago Symphony, together with the various choirs and some of the top soloists of the day were captured in excellent analogue sound.  Conductor and orchestra were on a European tour and it seemed a very good idea to add to Solti’s Mahler cycle a recording made in a venue famed for its sonic splendour.  It’s now over forty years ago that the tapes were running; the problems of getting one and all together for the sessions have been well documented, and were almost as fraught as for Klemperer’s recording of Das Lied von der Erde.  Solti, though not the most loved of conductors in some quarters (including the Vienna Philharmonic’s chairman and committee members at the time – see On An Overgrown Path), was able more than most, I think, to conjure up the excitement of a live performance in a studio recording, and this recording is no exception.

For years enthusiasts have hoped for a better-than-CD release, opining that the double-LP set sounded so much finer.  Universal’s foray into the world of SACD came and went, so, after all these years it is a pleasure to welcome this old friend as part of an initial release as 24/96 flac (or wma).   The sound-stage is clearer, instruments delineated, and ambience far more discrete than on the most recent CD release.  While the performance retains its five-star and star-studded status, recording quality and method have moved on and while some releases may be technically superior, they don’t quite have the buzz of Solti’s fizzing energy.

R. STRAUSS:   Also sprach Zarathustra Op. 30;  HOLST:  The Planets Op. 32 – Boston Symphony Orchestra / William Steinberg – DGG 24/96 download – UNI 016 – 76:00 ****:

These recordings were two gems on the Yellow Label during the early 1970s during which time the Boston Symphony Orchestra made a series of very highly-regarded recordings in Symphony Hall.  These include Kubelik in Smetana’s Ma Vlast, Steinberg in Hindemith and Tilson Thomas in Piston, Ruggles and a lovely rendition of Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony, all bathed in that wonderful rich acoustic.

Steinberg was at the Boston Symphony’s helm for all too short a time, but he left a recording of Also Sprach Zarathustra which, like Krauss’s in Vienna and the composer himself, took a bird’s-eye view not making exaggerated points along the way. Holst’s The Planets gets a well-considered reading for the most part. The orchestral playing is superb, only moments of ill-disciplined, or ill-fitting, trumpet-playing causing one to wish a section had been re-taken.  Mars is too quick, though it is exciting, and one or two moments don’t quite make the effect needed, Venus a bit bland, for example, but I’m open to accusations of nit-picking.  For all that, I wouldn’t be without these readings – they were among a small handful of full-price LPs I bought as a student.  These 24/96 files allow the listener to appreciate what fine work DGG did in Boston; while the DGG Originals CD is a very good transfer, the improvement in resolution makes an upgrade a most worthwhile proposition.


RICHARD STRAUSS:  Also Sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30;  Don Juan, Op. 20;  Till Eulenspiegels Lustige Streiche, Op. 28 – Vienna Philharmonic Orch./ Clemens Krauss – Pristine Audio PASC 309 [24/44.1 download] 63:41 ***:

Three fairly recent 24 bit downloads from Pristine Audio caught my interest due to their being much-loved recordings from my youth.  I have labelled these 24/44.1 as they have been up-sampled to 24/48 because that rate is more compatible with DVD players, and I am going to concentrate on the technical aspects as the musical content has already been reviewed here.

Clemens Krauss (1893-1954) was a very fine conductor; in addition, he was a good friend of Richard Strauss and made recordings of his music over a considerable period.  The most famous of these is the series he made for Decca during the early 1950s which reappeared on LP on various bargain labels before Testament issued the lot in a fresh remastering on CDs.

The recording quality of Also Sprach Zarathustra wasn’t of the greatest even taking into consideration its recording date.  Recorded in June 1950 at the Musikverein, Vienna, it sounded increasingly poor during its life on LP though the Testament CD release was an ear-opener for me.  It’s an excellent performance, Krauss keeping a firm hand on the architecture of the whole rather than a series of incidentals, and the orchestra’s lower brass produces the rudest noises of any recording I have heard.  There is not much to choose from between the Testament CD and Pristine’s release,  Andrew Rose extracting from an LP’s grooves an extraordinary improvement over the original LP itself.  However, his careful stabilising of pitch using Celemony’s Capstan software adds to the value of this release.

Recorded a few days later in June 1950, Till Eulenspiegel and Don Juan have always give me the  impression that they are more comfortably recorded.  The 24 bit files from Pristine give a deep sound-stage and the more lightly scored sections sound like much more recent recordings to me.  The opening of Don Juan shows what results from enormous experience in playing a piece, a unanimity akin to chamber music. There is not the enormous difference between the sound quality of 24 bit flac and 16 bit mp3 that will be found in more modern recordings, nor is the result an audiophile experience.  The results, though, are what admirers of these Krauss recordings were hoping for, as good as possible for 2012.  If the master tapes are still in good condition a fresh transfer from these may produce even better results; in today’s economic climate a fresh transfer seems very unlikely.  Five star performances.

 

R. STRAUSS:  Don Quixote;  Horn Concerto No. 2 – Pierre Fournier, cello, Giusto Cappone, viola /Norbert Hauptmann, horn /Berliner Philharmoniker /Herbert von Karajan – DGG 24/96 download UNI 017 – 64:00 *****:

Recorded in the Jesus-Christus-Kirche during December 1965 (Don Quixote) and March 1973 (Horn Concerto No. 2), these wear their years very lightly indeed, and the recordings benefit a good deal from their 24/96 clothing.

Pierre Fournier and Giusto Cappone make a very eloquent duo and Hauptmann’s horn is ear-catchingly realistic and played with seemingly effortless virtuosity.  Karajan brings out the best in Strauss, a composer even his more irrational detractors grudgingly admit he had a way with.  And there’s no evidence of conductorial interference in the control-room here, either.  These long-lived wonders of the catalogue will be so well-known to many readers, but I, for one, heard so much more detail in these high resolution files, I was captivated afresh.  High resolution alternatives include two recordings with Mischa Maisky (with Zubin Mehta or Vladimir Ashkenazy) which I haven’t heard, and a less recommendable version from Dresden with Fabio Luisi, well-played but with less character than Karajan brings out.

High resolution downloads are a fairly new diversion for Universal and the product is available through, in various countries, via HDTracks, Linn, Qobuz and HiresAudio.  There are two problems with these, I think.  Firstly, they come at more than a premium price, far more than I would pay for most SACD releases, and secondly, at that price, the purchaser really ought to get an electronic booklet, which one doesn’t.

 

Two exciting and contrasting hi-res recordings of music for organ:

CHARLES VILLIERS STANFORD:  Organ Works – Thomas Winpenny (James J. Binns organ of Queens’ College, University of Cambridge, UK) – Resonus RES10104 [24/96 download] 72:07 *****:

After a period in the wilderness of cathedral canticles the music of Sir Charles Villiers (pronounced Villers) Stanford (1852–1924) once seen as stuffily Victorian by some influential critics, was taken out of dusty drawers in the late 1970s and reassessed.  Slowly but surely much of his orchestral and chamber music has been recorded, some performed for the first time, and its association with Empire and anti-macassar gradually weakened.  Who would have thought when the BBC broadcast performances of the symphonies under Alan Suttie 35 years ago that we would have the luxury of two recorded cycles?

The church music and music for organ did survive Stanford’s post mortem wilderness years, performed week in and week out in cathedrals and parish churches.  The school I attended had the full complement of 700 sing Stanford’s Te Deum in B flat (I can hear it in my head now as I write) and despite it being a jolly good sing, we referred to it scandalously as Tedium in B flat.

Tom Winpenny has Stanford’s music in his blood. Chorister at York, music scholar at Eton (which  counts Peter Warlock and Sir Hubert Parry as just two well-known OE composers, not to mention Dr “Ducky” Mallard of NCIS), assistant organist at St Paul’s (it is he at the organ in LSO Live’s recording of the Mahler Symphony No. 8 under Valery Gergiev) and now assistant at St Alban’s, his recital programme of some of the organ music is a thoroughly satisfying release.

The big works shine in their majesty.  What a fine piece the opening Fantasia & Fugue is, and its considerable demands are overcome with seemingly effortless ease.  The more intimate pieces, some easier on the fingers and feet, make effective interludes until we reach the same key as in the opening piece for Stanford’s well-known Postlude in D minor for the conclusion of this rewarding cross-section of his work.  Born in Dublin in a different Ireland from the one we know today, Stanford continued to be inspired by his home country for the whole of his life, and this, happily, touched on his organ music, too.  Intermezzo founded upon an Irish Air is just one such piece, charming, light, and easily written-off by some as light fluff.

The organ at Queen’s College, Cambridge (James J. Binns) is an instrument which Stanford may well have known. Constructed in 1892, it has survived unaltered, a fine example of late-Victorian organ building.  Happily, too, it has been recorded here in very fine sound by Adam Binks for his relatively recently founded label, Resonus Classics.  This is the first download-only, that is, solely digital label and it has eschewed the physical medium from the start.  While mp3 and 16 bit flac files can be downloaded from its website, I opted for the high resolution 24 bit (24/96) flacs.  Stereo only, the sound quality is wonderfully open and wide-ranging, and will disappoint only those fwho see the lack of using a certain sort of digital converter or pure DSD recording made under the current thoughts of what constitutes the best temperature and humidity readings.

Digital only, the accompanying booklet is of such high quality, and yet one can download it free of charge from Resonus’ website. It has a very fine essay by Giles Brightwell about Stanford and the works recorded, as well as the organ specification and a selection of excellent photographs. There are also samples of each track for audition.  A review may well be superfluous! Well worth investigating!

TrackList:
Fantasia and Toccata in D minor, Op. 57
1.   Fantasia
2.   Toccata
3.   Canzona, Op. 116, No. 2 *
Prelude and Fugue in E minor (1874) *
4.   Prelude
5.   Fugue
6.   Prelude (in form of a Chaconne), Op. 88, No. 2
7.   Intermezzo founded upon an Irish Air, Op. 189, No. 4
8.   Epithalamium, Op. 182, No. 5 *
Three Preludes and Fugues, Op. 193
9.   Prelude in C
10. Fugue in C
11. Prelude in C minor
12. Fugue in C minor
13. Prelude in B minor
14. Fugue in B minor (Fuga Cromatica)
15. By the Seashore, Op. 194, No. 1 *
16. In Modo Dorico, from Op. 132, No. 1
17. Postlude in D minor, Op. 105, No. 6

 

JUDITH BINGHAM:  The Everlasting Crown (2010) – Stephen Farr (organ) – Resonus RES10108 [24/96 download] 31:54 *****:

Another five-star organ release from Resonus.  I’ll start right away by drawing attention to the playing time if you are reading this far – have no fear, the recording is priced accordingly.

Judith Bingham’s “The Everlasting Crown” was premièred during London’s BBC Promenade Concerts of 2011.  On 17 July, Stephen Farr gave a recital on the organ in the Royal Albert Hall, a programme of some variety which included Alain: Litanies, Liszt: Prelude Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen (arr. Winterberger), JS Bach: Chorale Prelude ‘Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott’, BWV 721, and the piece recorded here, Judith Bingham:  The Everlasting Crown.

Paul Serotsky described Bingham’s music as “compromisingly modern” and The Everlasting Crown continues in that vein, 21st-century without frightening the horses.  The colours and textures produced in this seven-movement work inspired by, amongst other things, the iridescence of precious stones, the history, myth and fact behind them, and that, unlike us, age does not wither them.  Modern, sounding quite a challenge to perform, it is nonetheless sufficiently approachable unless music for pipe organ is anathema for you, in which case you certainly won’t be reading this far.  However, that aside, it may well take several auditions to appreciate what Judith Bingham has achieved, as it should with all but the most superficial of writing.

Recorded on the Harrison & Harrison instrument which Peter Hurford and the late Ralph Downes designed for St Alban’s Abbey in 1962, both instrument and acoustic combine with Stephen Farr at the console to allow the biggest sounds the space and the intimate sections the clarity they need.  The instrument is in top condition, too, having been restored recently.  The sound quality of Adam Binks’ recording is quite first-class, the stereo-only 24 bit option again chosen for audition.

The excellent booklet has an introduction by the composer (who attended the recording session), as well as an extensive essay by Andrew Stewart about the music, full organ specifications and photographs.  Superb production values all round.

TrackList:
1. The Crown
2. Coranta: Atahualpa’s Emerald
3. La Pelegrina
4. The Orlov Diamond
5. The Russian Spinel
6. King Edward’s Sapphire
7. The Peacock Throne

 

 

IONA BROWN & The Norwegian Chamber Orchestra:  GRIEG:  Two Elegiac Melodies, Op. 34;  Two Norwegian Melodies, Op. 63;  TIPPETT:  Fantasia Concertante on a theme of Corelli;  BEETHOVEN:  Symphony No. 1 – Naim CD009 [24/96 download] 59:00 *****:

Iona Brown (1941-2001) was a talented violinist and conductor of both the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra, as recorded here, and of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.  This excellent release is a rare late analogue recording, made in concert during August 1994 in Salisbury Cathedral.

What a concert that must have been.  The orchestra is on peak form playing with unblemished ensemble in this varied programme.  Moving romantic Grieg is followed by one of my favourite pieces of Tippett, the energising Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli, and a lean and exciting performance of Beethoven’s First Symphony, all a very pleasant evening’s entertainment.

Using simple microphone placing (a stereo pair) and a Nagra tape recorder, Ken Christianson has succeeded in capturing the performance beautifully, without it being bathed in too much cathedral acoustic. Each part is clear, and the recording is entirely natural.  Post-processing has the analogue signal converted to 24/96 PCM for download using Naim equipment.

The results are as close to perfection – a marriage of first-class performance with first-class sound. Rewarding and highly recommended!

TrackList:
Grieg – Two Elegiac Melodies, Opus 34 – The Wounded One
Grieg – Two Elegiac Melodies, Opus 34 – The Spring
Grieg – Two Norwegian Melodies, Opus 63 – In Folk Style
Grieg – Two Norwegian Melodies, Opus 63 – Cow Call
Tippett – Fantasia Concertante – On A Theme Of Corelli
Beethoven – Symphony No.1 in C major, Op. 21

 

 

ANDRE MATHIEU:  Concerto de Québec; Ballet Scenes – Philippe Entremont, piano /  Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse /Michel Plasson – Analekta AN 2 9803 [24/88.2 download] ***:

André Mathieu’s story produces a mixture of emotions. Mathieu (1929-1968) was a prodigy whose pianism and compositions were celebrated from the mid-1930s.  Born in Montréal, he went to Paris as a boy to study with Yves Nat and others, and his fame soon spread.  Caught in the Americas in 1939, he studied in New York, and won further prizes for playing and writing.  His return to Paris in 1946 was not a success, and his fragility slowly allowed his mental and physical health to deteriorate, and a growing dependence on alcohol worsened the situation.  The candle was snuffed out before his 40th birthday, by which time he had become largely forgotten.

Recorded in May 1978 at the Claude Champagne Hall, Montréal, this is an analogue recording of two of Mathieu’s works. The Concerto de Québec is Mathieu’s Third Piano Concerto, written in 1943, by which time its style was old-fashioned.  The Ballet Scenes, again quite delightful light music, were written over several years between 1938 and 1945.  Mathieu’s style is described in the on-line notes as harkening back to Rachmaninov and Debussy, and these two works don’t leave as great an impression as those composers’ works do, despite the fine pianist Philippe Entrement doing his best to bring out Mathieu’s genius.

The analogue tapes have been well-transferred to 24/88.2 flac and the sound quality is very good.  However, the piano does not seem to have been in the best condition, sounding a bit wooden and clangy; I guess it’s the piano at fault rather than the original recording as the orchestra is very well caught by the engineers.  An interesting release, nonetheless.

TrackList:
Ballet Scenes

I.   Berceuse – Lullaby
II.  Complainte – Lament
III. Dans les Champs – In the Fields
IV. Danse des Espiègles – Dance of the Mischievous

NB – At the time of writing,  Analekta’s website is undergoing updating and downloading will not be possible for a bit.

 

MENDELSSOHN:  Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64;  BRUCH: Violin Concerto No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 26 – Ruggiero Ricci, violin /London Symphony Orchestra /Pierino Gamba – Pristine Audio PASC 226 [24/44.1 download] 50:50 ****:

Ruggiero Ricci’s recordings of two violin concertos in the standard repertoire date from all of six and a half years later during which time great advances had been made in recording.  Not only had tape improved, but original stereo recording was the norm in 1957, just a few mono recordings appearing from the UK and U.S. majors from that date.  While the opening of Ricci’s account of the Mendelssohn sounds a wee bit too effortful to me, the Bruch remains one of the most successful in the catalogue, and the Kingsway Hall recording quality is excellent.  Ricci is forwardly balanced, though not as far forward as Heifetz.  Heifetz’s recordings are available on SACD; I find the Mendelssohn played as though Heifetz hated the outer movements, which he didn’t seem to in his earlier recording with Beecham.

 

POULENC:  Gloria;  Organ Concerto in G Minor;  SATIE:  Parade: (3 excerpts); Deux Morceau en Forme de Poire: Enleve II; Redite – Rosanna Carteri, soprano /Maurice Durufle, organ /French National Radio & Television Orchestra & Chorus /Georges Pretre /Georges Auric & Francis Poulenc, piano – Pristine Audio PASC 324 [24/44.1 download] 65:35 *****:

For me, the cream of this selection comes in the third release here, Poulenc’s music recorded in 1961 with Georges Prêtre, Rosanna Carteri and Maurice Duruflé, at least some of it in the presence of the composer.  I would be surprised to learn that these superb performances have ever been out of the catalogue.  As a substantial bonus, Francis Poulenc and Georges Auric play duets by Eric Satie, Parade and two of the Trois morceaux en forme de poire, nicely transferred from 1937 recordings on 78s.

However, the recording of the organ concerto has always, until now, suffered from a condition afflicting a number of recordings of orchestra with organ, a rather noticeable disparity of pitch, a quarter tone, between them.  Again, it’s Celemony’s Capstan and Pristine’s Andrew Rose to the rescue, and the problem has been ameliorated.  In addition, the 24 bit transfer also comes into its own, producing a full fat sound compared with the leaner EMI CD.  Marvellous stuff!

 

Benjamin Grosvenor piano:  Chopin,  Liszt,  Ravel – [TrackList follows] Decca 24/96 download UNI 013 – 75:00 *****:

Ben Grosvenor’s “This & That” recorded a few years ago now, was something of an ear-opener from a youthful player.  This quite new release from Decca, his first of many I hope, for this label, shows the pianist’s development since then during his carefully-managed and not over-exposed career has continued apace.

Stunningly well-played and most beautifully recorded, this recital is one of the most impressive I have heard this year.  Alternating a Scherzo with a Nocturne Grosvenor brings variety to the listener, the Chopin-inspired Liszt an interesting interlude, and Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit an exciting conclusion.  There is a good deal of competition in the catalogue, but this recital is greater than the sum of its parts, an intensely satisfying hour and a quarter.

Most highly recommended for investigation, especially in its high resolution format.  No booklet was supplied with the download, its absence needing addressing.  That aside, this is a record of the year for me!

TrackList:
1. Chopin: Scherzo No. 1 In B Minor, Op. 20
2. Chopin: Nocturne No. 5 in F sharp, Op.15, No. 2
3. Chopin: Scherzo No. 4 In E, Op. 54
4. Chopin: Nocturne No.19 in E minor, Op. 72 No.1
5. Chopin: Scherzo No. 3 in C sharp minor, Op. 39
6. Chopin: Nocturne In C Sharp Minor, Op. Posth.
7. Chopin: Scherzo No. 2 In B Flat Minor, Op. 31
8. Liszt: My Joys, Op. 74 No. 12 (after Chopin as No. 5 of “Six Chants Polonais” S.480)
9. Liszt: The Maiden’s Wish, Op. 74,No.1 (after Chopin as No.1 of “Six Chants Polonais” S.480)
10. Liszt: En Reve, Nocturne, S.207
11. Ravel: Gaspard de la nuit – Ondine
12. Ravel: Gaspard de la nuit – Le gibet
Ravel: Gaspard de la nuit – Scarbo

 

KALINNIKOV:  Symphony No. 1 in G minor;  Symphony No. 2 in A Major – Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra /Kees Bakels – BIS-1155 [24/44.1 download] 77:29 *****:

Vassily Sergeyevich Kalinnikov (1866–1901) died of tuberculosis aged but 34 years.  He had struggled financially, fought to get a musical education, and was at a late stage rescued from further penury by the young Sergei Rachmaninov.

The First Symphony (1894-95) was something of a success when first performed in 1897, and the Second (1895-7) is even more highly regarded.  The works are unmistakeably Russian, related by blood to works by, for example, Balakirev and, especially Tchaikovsky, and yet these are no pastiche.  Written in typical four-movement format, they’re brimful of invention, energy and colour.  Toscanini held the composer in high regard and a live recording of the First set down in 1943 survives in listenable sound on various labels including Testament.

The Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra is on top form on this recording, under their former chief conductor, Kees Bakels, whose Rimsky-Korsakov survey on BIS is also very highly thought of.  An alternative issue under Neeme Jarvi and the Royal Scottish on Chandos also has some excellent playing, yet it is this newer release which is more tightly-reasoned and which appealed more.

The sound quality achieved through recording in the Dewan Filharmonic Petronas Hall is excellent on all releases I’ve heard from that venue.  I did spend some time comparing the 24/44.1 files to 16/44.1 alternatives and was struck by the more focussed acoustic for a start in the former.  Released a few months ago, these symphonies were actually recorded back in December 2000 and have been patiently in the queue awaiting release for twelve years.  Well, this recording was well worth the wait, for the tight playing under Bakels and as fine a sound as I’ve heard at this resolution showcases these two works in an excellent light.  Very highly recommended!

 

NORDIC SHOWCASE:  Scandinavian Music – Richard Tognetti, violin /Nordic Chamber Orchestra / Christian Lindberg – BIS-1538 [24/44.1 download] 60:46 ****:

The Nordic Chamber Orchestra was founded a short time ago, 1990, and over the last twenty and more years has been involved in a wide variety of activities, commissioning music from young composers, working in all musical fields and concentrating a good deal of the time bringing music to the young.  Christian Lindberg needs little introduction as one the top trombonists in the world today, and he is now in his seventh year as principle conductor of the orchestra.  The orchestra is joined in Svendsen’s Romance for violin and orchestra by the Australian violinist, Richard Tognetti, whose Guadagnini is well captured by the engineers.

The programme is a well-designed recital of Nordic music from several eras, the earliest music coming from Anders Wesström (1720-1781) effervescent and charming. Nielsen’s Little Suite gets an excellent performance, and Sibelius’ Impromptu makes an apt conclusion.

Of special value are the rarities, Leifs’ entertaining Beethoven Variations with an Icelandic flavour, and Bo Linde’s Brittenesque Concerto for wind quintet and strings. This is a very successful concert collection.  Sound quality is very good indeed; this may be only the Cinderella 24/44.1 resolution but it sounds impressive, nonetheless.

TrackList:
1-3. NIELSEN Suite for string orchestra, Op. 1 (1888)
4.  SVENDSEN Romance for violin and orchestra, Op. 26 (1881)
5-7.   WESSTRÖM Armida Overture
8.  LEIFS Variazioni Pastorali, Op. 8 –  Variations on a theme of Beethoven
9-11.  LINDE Concerto piccolo, Op. 35 (1967) for wind quintet and string orchestra
SIBELIUS Impromptu for strings

 

ARWEL HUGHES:  Prelude for orchestra (1945);  Owain Glyndwr, legend (1979);  Serch yw’r Doctor (Love’s the Doctor) – Overture to the Opera (1960);  Suite for Orchestra (1947);  Anatiomaros (1943); Menna, Prelude to the Opera (1954) – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Owain Arwel Hughes – BIS 1674 [24/44.1 download] 74:22 ****:

Arwel Hughes (1909-1988) was a pupil of both Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst, a contemporary of Benjamin Britten at the Royal College of Music in London, and a composer, teacher, conductor, organist and broadcaster of enormous distinction for the BBC in Wales.  In addition to the orchestral works in this collection, he also wrote a Suite for Strings (1936) and a Symphony (1971) material perhaps for a second volume.

Anatiomaros was composed during the darkest days of the Second World War and tells a tale of a Wales of long ago, during pre-Christian times.  Anatiomaros, who embodies wisdom and eternity awaits his end in a sort of Death and Transfiguration, where Death comes in the form of a swan. When his body is placed on a swan-shaped barge sailing towards the setting sun, his soul is set free, the sort of legend quite common in Northern Europe.  The music has that Celtic feel to it which ensures comparison with Bax and others, and ought to be better known.  The Prelude for Orchestra written in happier times and dedicated to the Youth of  Wales is a bold and energetic piece, serving as an apt opener for the collection.  The Music for Orchestra written in 1947 is a set of colourful pieces light of heart.

Two overtures for opera are included, Menna, a tragic folk tale of the love and marriage of Gwyn and Menna, and Love’s the Doctor, an opera in Welsh based on the amusing play by Molière, and whose overture has some wonderful swaggering rhythms. Owain Glyndwr (Owen Glendower) tells of the number one Welsh hero, a 13th-century symbol for the country.

I sampled this release in full so many times on the BIS website that a purchase seemed too obvious to resist; I did find the music grew on me and became quite addictive, various elements remaining in my mind for some time.  Arwel Hughes’ music is conducted on this release by his son, Owain Arwel Hughes and the results speak with authority.  Surprisingly, the orchestra is the Royal Philharmonic and not the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, and they are on very good form indeed.  The recording was made in May 2009 in the Cadogan Hall, which is on the other side of the road of the hotel where Oscar Wilde was arrested.  The sound quality is very good without being exceptional, though it gives the impression the fortes do not have quite enough room to expand.  My superficial comparison with Bax’s music may serve as a prompt for some to sample this release at BIS’s website where whole tracks can be auditioned.

BIS downloads are available from eclassical.com and other outlets.  Booklets are available for download whether you buy the music or not, and the music is priced per second.  In other words, there is no financial penalty if you would like to sample a track or two of an album.

— All Reviews, Peter Joelson, UK




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