A Selective Guide to the Arts in Los Angeles

Mahler: Symphony No. 5 (Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Daniel Harding) [Harmonia Mundi] – British conductor Daniel Harding ventures into the second installment of what promises to be a new integral cycle of the composer’s symphonies. Listening to it one can only ask: why? The Harmonia Mundi production is excellent, with great sense of space, as well as balance between rich blend and instrumental detail. But the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra lacks the last level of polish and sheen of the world’s very best orchestras, which have recorded this repertoire extensively under the greatest conductors of the past. Brass are fine, if tending towards the blowzy, but the strings sound malnourished, a terrible flaw which wrings the life out of this symphony’s rich writing for that section. The Swedes could have done listeners a service by recording the orchestral works of any number of their worthy compatriots needing wider attention (e.g. Ture Rangström, Hilding Rosenberg, Erland von Koch, Kurt Atterberg, etc.) instead of this handsomely produced cure for insomnia.

Elgar: The Wand of Youth, Nursery Suite, Salut d’amour, etc. (Hallé Orchestra/Sir Mark Elder) [Hallé] – Neither conductor nor orchestra are strangers to these works. The Hallé has been championing the works of Elgar since the heyday of Hans Richter, while Sir Mark Elder has made a number of distinguished contributions to his discography, notably a grand Symphony No. 1. Yet this survey of the composer’s most immediately appealing work unexpectedly falls flat. Elder can’t help fussing with the details, domineering these boyhood reveries like an over-protective parent. Under his direction, the dewy sentimentality and verdant naïveté of these scores have been twisted into a vision of children posturing as self-aware adults engaged in carefully choreographed play. Stick to the carefree horseplay and dreaminess of LPO/Boult (EMI/Warner) or NZSO/Judd (Naxos).

Copland: Connotations, Symphony No. 3, Letter From Home, Down a Country Lane (BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/John Wilson [Chandos] – First Chandos gave us a fine cycle of Ives’ orchestral works played by Australians. Now they present a British take on the works of Copland. This fourth installment in the label’s ongoing survey of the composer’s orchestral music is a fine addition to the catalog. Sonics are, as ever with Chandos, spectacular, but even better are the buttoned-down performances they capture. The Third Symphony, especially, benefits from the clear-eyed approach of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra players under John Wilson, who burn the mist of jingoistic bombast right off the score in their laser-etched reading.

Busoni: Piano Concerto (Kirill Gerstein; Men of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, Boston Symphony Orchestra/Sakari Oramo) [Myrios] – Any time a pianist tackles Busoni’s inspired, elephantine symphonic potpourri of a Piano Concerto — part Brahms, part Liszt, part sublimity, part kitsch — one takes notice. But Kirill Gerstein’s brilliant traversal of a work that is to its genre what Mahler’s Eighth Symphony or Strauss’ Eine Alpensinfonie are to theirs not only provokes the attention of the listener, but sustains it across its 70 minutes as few others are capable of. Abetted superbly by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Sakari Oramo, Gerstein leaps from summit to summit in this performance alight with power, impeccable timing and eloquent phrasing. A worthy reading to place alongside those of John Ogdon (EMI/Warner) and Marc-André Hamelin (Hyperion).

Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos. 6 and 7, excerpts from incidental music to King Lear (1940) (Boston Symphony Orchestra/Andris Nelsons) [Deutsche Grammophon] – The fourth installment in Andris Nelsons’ ongoing survey of the Shostakovich symphonies has arrived, this time covering two of his middle-period symphonies and some excerpts of his estimable (and still rarely performed) theater music. Despite the breathless PR which has accompanied it, Nelsons’ Shostakovich has been — like the composer’s music, it must be admitted — variable. This particular set is no different, though leaning towards its virtues rather than flaws. The flaccid rhythms of the Festive Overture are quickly forgotten in these excellent, straightforward readings of the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies. Nelsons gratefully avoids the exaggerations of agogics and tempi commonplace in Shostakovich today. Excerpts from the composer’s Mahlerian music for Grigori Kozintsev’s 1940 staging of King Lear are a welcome bonus, though the omission of the Fool’s songs are regrettable. Sonics are shallow and somewhat diffuse.

Dinu Lipatti: The Last Recital [FY Solstice] – The heart-wrenching story of Dinu Lipatti’s final recital in Besançon is well-known to pianophiles, to say nothing of the recording from that event, which was eventually issued commercially by EMI. But this new issue from FY Solstice, sourced for the first time from the INA master tapes, is a revelation nonetheless. Never before have the haze of overtones, the crystalline subtlety of his singing lines, the sheer presence of Lipatti’s pianism been heard with such fidelity as one encounters here. Banished is the sonic muddiness which had previously rendered into a nondescript blur Lipatti’s inimitable crispness and subtly multi-colored phrasing. Revealing, too, in their quiet manner is his “preluding” — brief improvisatory warm-ups that launch each piece on this program — which are here finally presented unedited. Scholarly liner notes by Mark Ainley round out this treasurable reissue of one of the great miracles of recorded pianism.

—Néstor Castiglione, Culture Spot LA