Off the shelf

Neeme Jarvi, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Boris Berman and Horacio Gutierrez (piano); Sergey Prokofiev Piano Concertos 1-5 ***
Neeme Jarvi and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra recorded Prokofiev’s five piano concertos between 1989 and 1990. For the recording, Jarvi and the orchestra are joined by Boris Berman in Nr. 1, 4, and 5 and Horacio Gutierrez in Nr. 2 and 3. Jarvi’s Prokofiev interpretations are special. Unlike Gergiev who pushes through the music too quickly in his LSO Phillips recording of the symphonies and Ozawa whose interpretation of the same music is the sonic equivalent of quick sand – slow, unpleasant, and sinking – Jarvi’s Prokofiev recordings tend to be astutely paced. This concerto set is no different. For instance, Jarvi pushes the First Concerto forward feverishly but also takes time in the middle of the piece, to hang on the piece’s lyricism. And, the Fifth Concerto zips along without sacrificing orchestral color. Along with Ashkenazy’s recording of the complete piano concertos, this re-release is a satisfying way to acquire all five concertos at a wallet friendly price.

Dimitry Yablonsky, Russian Philharmonic Orchestra, Konstantin Scherbakov (piano);
Anton Arensky Piano Concerto, etc. (Naxos)

Anton Arensky’s Piano Concerto in F Minor has appeared on disk from time to time. The concerto made an appearance as part of Hyperion’s Romantic Piano Concerto series. That recording featured pianist Stephen Coombs and Jerzy Maksymiuk and the Glasgow BBC Scottish Symphony. This new recording also features a talented team in Konstantin Scherbakov and the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Dmitry Yablonsky. Talent aside, these two recordings are very different. Yablonsky’s approach in the first movement of the Piano Concerto is more elastic – speeding up and slowing down in ways that remind me of Pletnev’s Beethoven Piano Concerto cycle. Maksymiuk adopts more satisfying speeds throughout. He is slower in the first movement, but marginally faster in the last two. The Hyperion recording offers better balance between the orchestra and Coombs. There are times on the Naxos disk when the orchestra is too forward giving the impression of unanimity of position on the concert stage. The Naxos recording does have the advantage of including the Symphonic Scherzo and “In Memory of Suvorov.”

New Zealand Piano Quartet;
Ludwig Beethoven Piano Quartets (Naxos)

This new release by the New Zealand Piano Quartet is a welcome addition to the Naxos catalog. Beethoven’s three piano quartets are without opus number. The quartets are from the pen of a 15 year old Beethoven and anticipate the career of a musical giant. The quartets were composed contemporaneously with Mozart’s two piano quartets and like Mozart demonstrate the trend of writing more interesting music for the piano and an appreciation for the keyboard’s ability to provide more than just continuo. The playing is sympathetic and the recording pleasantly pulls out each instrument’s voice. If there is a drawback, it is the music itself. What these pieces lack are paradigm shifting moments like the ones we find in the Symphony Nr. 3 and Nr. 9 and throughout his chamber music especially the piano sonatas and string quartets. Nevertheless, Beethoven lovers shouldn’t be without this disk of early Beethoven chamber music.

Nicholas McGegan, NDR Chor and FestspielOrchester Gottingen;
G.F. Handel Samson (Carus)

Nicholas McGegan’s new recording of G.F. Handel’s oratorio “Samson” is a thing of beauty. Recorded in the Frauenkirche Dresden, this new recording is remarkably life-like and natural. The orchestra, soloists, and choir give committed performances reflecting McGegan’s understanding of Handel’s music and “Samson’s” place among Handel’s other oratorios.

Handel began writing Samson as soon as he completed the “Messiah.” “Samson” is one of the composer’s most dramatic oratorios even if it lacks the operatic tendencies of other oratorios. In fact, the composer put the score aside when he completed it so that the piece could be performed alongside the opera season at King’s Theater. Unlike Handel’s other oratorios which utilize virtuosic singers to make its point, Samson depends on the acting skill of the two principal singers – Samson and Dalila. This new “Samson’s” drama is carried out with convincing effect by tenor Thomas Cooley and soprano Sophie Daneman – Samson and Dalilia respectively. Samson’s tragedy and Dalilia’s seduction have exceptional advocates in Cooley and Daneman.

Graham Ross, Dimitri Ensemble;
James MacMillan Seven Last Words From the Cross, etc. (Naxos)

James MacMillan’s “Seven Last Words From the Cross” was first shown on BBC during Holy Week. In the time since that broadcast, “Seven Last Words” is widely considered MacMillan’s masterpiece. The piece follows Christ’s final utterances at the Crucifixion, forming a dramatic sequence of tragedy and searing beauty. This new recording by the Dimitri Ensemble is embraced by the composer who says in the program notes, “This excellent, young ensemble brings a breath of fresh air to music making in this country…I am honored and thrilled they are choosing to mark my 50th birthday with this disk on Naxos.” MacMillan has good reason to be thrilled with this release. The playing and singing in “Seven Last Words” is vibrant. Graham Ross, through his conducting, creates a tension that is sustained through the piece and illuminates the holy drama “Seven Last Words” is based on. Ross is equally effective in the three choral pieces that fill out this release – “Christus Vincit,” “Nemo te condemnavit,” and “…here in hiding…”

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