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DOWNLOAD NEWS 2013/8
by Brian Wilson


See the Download News archive here.

I have to apologise for a longer than usual gap in producing this edition and its predecessor, 2013/7 - here - largely occasioned by problems with my PC and the new model which I bought to replace it – no sooner had I got the hang of using Windows 8 than everything had to be uninstalled and reinstalled. As a result this DL News is late and over-laden even though I’ve gathered together a number of recent Beulah albums in a separate DL News to celebrate their forthcoming 20th birthday.

Carlo GESUALDO, Prince of Venosa (c.1561-1613)

Fifth and Sixth Books of Madrigals (1611)
Delitiæ Musicæ/Marco Longhini – rec.2010 and 2011. DDD.
Pdf booklet with texts and translations included
NAXOS 8.573147-9 [3 CDs: 3:02:41] – from classicsonline.com (mp3 and lossless) or stream from Naxos Music Library

Fifth Book of Madrigals (1611)
La Venexiana
GLOSSA GCD920935 [64:10] – from classicsonline.com (mp3) or stream from Naxos Music Library

Sixth Book of Madrigals (1611)
Il Complesso Barocco/Alan Curtis – rec.1994. DDD.
PAN CLASSICS PC10229 [70:50] – from eclassical.com (mp3 and lossless) or stream from Naxos Music Library (with booklet)

La Compagnia del Madrigale – rec. June/July 2012. DDD.
Pdf booklet with texts included
GLOSSA GCD922801 [77:42] – from classicsonline.com (mp3) or stream from Naxos Music Library

O Dolorosa Gioa – Madrigals
Philippe De MONTE Di mie dogliose note [3:47]
Pomponio NENNA Occhi miei che vedeste giov’ an [4:14]
Giovanni MONTELLA Se lontana voi sete [2:04]
Carlo GESUALDO Moro, lasso, al mio duolo [4:05]
Se la mia morte brami [4:21]
Beltà poiche t’ assenti [4:32]
Canzone del Principe [6:05]
Gioite voi col canto [3:44]
Se non miro non moro [3:34]
Se vi duol il mio duolo [3:58]
Asciugate i begli occhi [4:28]
Mercè grido piangendo [5:05]
Lasguisce al fin [4:52]
Tu m’uccidi, o crudele [3:40]
Luzzasco LUZZASCHI Ahi cruda sorte mia [3:33]
Lungi da te cor mio [3:24]
Itene mie querele [1:43]
Maria Galassi (harp), Andrea Damiani (theorbo)
Concerto Italiano/Rinaldo Alessandrini – rec. c.1999. DDD.
NAÏVE OPUS111 OP30486 [67:10] – from eclassical.com (mp3 and lossless) or stream from Naxos Music Library (no booklet from either).

Gesualdo is famous – notorious even – for having killed his wife and her lover and it’s popularly supposed that his music is so intense because of his guilt at that deed. If that’s so, the Borgias did a pretty good job of hiding their guilt, but it is true that his sacred and secular music is darker than that of his contemporary Monteverdi. If your idea of a madrigal is the English variety such as It was a lover and his lass or Now is the month of Maying, Gesualdo will be quite a shock to your system. The question at issue in these recordings of his final two books of madrigals is how slow and how intense the music should be and there’s quite a range to choose among.

Naxos: this is the final volume of the series. Longhini’s earlier volumes, like his recordings of Monteverdi, have met with a mixed response from myself and other MusicWeb reviewers. Both the style of performance, with an all-male cast and counter-tenors on the top line, and the almost universally slow tempi take some getting used to, so I suggest that you try it out from Naxos Music Library if you can; otherwise listen to some of the short snippets which Naxos include on their web page.

I reviewed Books 1 and 3 in this series in my June 2011/2 Download Roundup and, as then, my response to their latest release remains generally favourable but with reservations about the balance with an all-male ensemble and the often very slow tempi adopted. On this occasion I think these work but try some of the madrigals first along with the other recordings that I’ve listed via Naxos Music Library. Taking just the first two madrigals from Book 6 at random, Alan Curtis is fastest, la Venexiana and Alessandrini occupy the middle ground and Longhini is very much slower than any of the competition, hence the need to run to three CDs. Book Five fares rather better but the opening two madrigals take 4:19 and 4:18 respectively against 3:11 and 3:08 from la Venexiana, 3:44 and 3:34 from Alan Curtis, so the difference is still quite marked.

The mp3 sound is much more than acceptable – the lossless version was not yet available when I obtained my review download. Naxos’s lossless versions come in one long file with no separate tracks; there’s another lossless version from eclassical.com, but that comes without the booklet of notes and texts.

Pan Classics: Il Complesso Barocco are a group with an excellent track record in baroque music for various labels – I’m currently looking forward to having enough spare time to listen to their latest recording for Virgin Classics, Handel’s Giove in Argo (72311622). Their recording of Book Six makes a more secure recommendation for me than the Naxos. Their DVD recording of music by Gesualdo didn’t get much of a recommendation from Tim Perry, who advised leaving it well alone – review – but that was more because of Werner Herzog’s film than the performances. On Pan Classics they deliver impassioned performances of this very emotive music, so I can think of no good reason why the recording was not released until 2011 when it was recorded in 1994. Tempi are generally the fastest on offer here without ever sounding peremptory.

From eclassical.com it comes in mp3 and very good lossless sound but there’s no book of words. Classicsonline.com have the book but offer mp3 only. The way to square that circle is to purchase the download from eclassical.com and download the booklet from Naxos Music Library.

The two Glossa recordings would probably be my desert-island compromise, by which I don’t mean to imply that the performances are in any way middling. La Venexiana are a distinguished and established ensemble whose work I’ve praised before and I enjoyed their singing in Book 5. I hadn’t encountered la Compagnia del madrigale before but they also acquit themselves very well in Book 6. As I was converting this review for the web, I note that Johan van Veen has also enjoyed this recording of Book 6 and made it a Recording of the Month.

Concerto Italiano: if you’re not willing to invest in the 3-CD Naxos or the Pan Classics CD of Book 6, this selection, mainly drawn from Books 5 and 6, together with madrigals by some of Gesualdo’s influences and contemporaries, may be just what you are looking for. Even if you intend to buy one of the other recordings, you may be interested in hearing this recording which places Gesualdo in context.

There are also recordings of Books Five and Six on the Globe label which I haven’t been able to hear, but were well liked by Gary Higginson – review. For the recent first recording of Gesualdo’s Sacræ Cantiones, Book II (Vocalconsort, Berlin, Harmonia Mundi HMC902123) see 2013/4 Download News. The eclassical.com download of this now comes with the pdf booklet with texts and translations, the lack of which I bemoaned.

Discovery of the Month
Bartłomiej Pękiel (c.1610-c.1670)

Missa a14 (Kyrie and Gloria) [3:20 + 3:48]
Resonet in laudibus [1:49]
Dulcis amor Jesu [6:28]
Magnum nomen Domini [1:49]
Audite morales [12:55]
O Adoranda Trinitas [2:55]
Nativitas tua [4:06]
Missa Concertata (La Lombardesca) (Kyrie and Gloria) [3:10 + 5:01]
Assumpta est Maria [2:42]
Missa Concertata (La Lombardesca) (Credo) [9:23]
Ave Maria [3:21]
Missa Concertata (La Lombardesca) (Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei) [1:36 + 1:35 + 1:51]
The Sixteen/Eamonn Dougan
Pdf booklet with texts and translations included
CORO COR16110 [65:59] – from thesixteendigital.com (mp3, aac, lossless flac and alac)

There are two discoveries here – the music of Pękiel, otherwise very sparsely represented in the catalogue, and the debut of associate director Eamonn Dougan in his first complete solo flight in the hot seat. Both are well worth your acquaintance.

The ghost of Monteverdi is hovering in the background of the music but it’s well worth hearing in its own right. There are no neglected masterpieces here, but there are no ineffective or over-imitative works either, and the performances, recording and booklet all do the music justice.

The recording comes in a variety of formats and prices, two lossy (mp3 and Apple’s aac at £7.99) and two lossless (flac and Apple alac at a rather pricey £16.50). It’s possible to purchase a passport for all formats for £19.50, which is well worth considering if you intend both to listen in 24/96 lossless and on an mp3 player or burn to CDR – the lack of an intermediate 16/44.1 flac version means that it’s impossible to burn the flac files to CDR – they are too large for that. Unless you can burn and play DVD/A, then, you’ll be limited to mp3 on disc.

Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)
Dixit Dominus, RV807 [26:44]
In furore iustissimae irae, RV626* [14:07]
George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Dixit Dominus, HWV232 [34:01]
Lucy Crowe (soprano)*
La Nuova Musica (Anna Dennis, Helen-Jane Howells, Augusta Hebbert, Esther Brazil (sopranos); Christopher Lowrey (counter[-tenor); Simon Wall, Tom Raskin (tenors) James Arthur (bass))/David Bates
Pdf booklet with texts and translations included.
HARMONIA MUNDI HMU807857 (35683115) [74:52] – from eclassical.com (mp3, 16– and 24-bit lossless)

George Frideric HANDEL
Gloria in excelsis Deo [16:05]
Emma Kirkby (soprano)
Royal Academy of Music Baroque Orchestra/Laurence Cummings – rec. 2001. DDD
Dixit Dominus, HWV232 [31:31]
Hillevi Martinpelto (soprano), Anne Sofie Von Otter (alto)
Stockholm Bach Choir, Drottingholm Baroque Ensemble/Anders Öhrwall – rec. 1985. DDD
Pdf booklet with texts and translations included
BIS-CD-1235 [47:36] – from eclassical.com (mp3 and lossless) or stream from Naxos Music Library
[see reviews by Kirk McElhearn and Peter Woolf]

There have been other recordings of the Handel Gloria but the BIS version can claim primacy, having been recorded soon after the work was discovered and almost universally accepted as the work of the young composer, in 2000. Having recorded the new work, BIS had to look around for something with which to couple it and decided that the Dixit Dominus of several years earlier would do well. In the event there is something of a mismatch, not least in terms of recording quality: the Gloria still sounds fresh and clear but Dixit Dominus is slightly distantly recorded. For all the quality of the performance, too, there’s a clear contrast between the soprano and Emma Kirkby.

With Emma Kirkby’s second thoughts on the Gloria, recorded with London Baroque, also available from BIS, with the Nine German Arias (BIS-CD-1615), the new Harmonia Mundi would seem to offer a better prospect, especially if you don’t have a recording of the two Vivaldi works.

In fact, this is RV807, not one of the more frequently recorded Vivaldi Dixits, RV594 and 595, and there are only four other recordings currently available; it’s not even included in the complete Hyperion Vivaldi Sacred Works, presumably because its misattribution to Galuppi had not then been cleared up. It receives a very good performance here, as does its very different Handel counterpart – less dramatic than you may be used to, but convincing. The whole is well recorded, especially as heard in 24-bit sound – 24/88.2, incidentally, which Windows 8 can cope with; users of earlier versions should set their DAC at 44.1.

I have not yet heard the Avie recording of Dixit from Apollo’s Fire or their even more recent one from Queen’s College, Oxford, and the Brook Street Band, apart from an excerpt on Radio 3, but Johan van Veen was not very impressed with the former – review. I hope to return to the newer Avie recording later. John Eliot Gardiner’s recording of Dixit and Zadok the Priest on Warner Apex remains a very worthwhile bargain recommendation, though it offers short value and cuts across other recommendations for Zadok with the other Coronation Anthems – review – download in earlier Erato guise from classicsonline.com for £4.49 or stream from Naxos Music Library. Classicsonline.com have the King’s/Willcocks recording on EMI Encore for just £2.99, with the Coronation Anthems (Ledger); listed in 2005 among the 100 Best Budget CDs, this is still well worth considering – try it first from Naxos Music Library.

Georg Philipp TELEMANN (1681-1767) Harmonischer Gottes-Dienst Volume V (Hamburg 1725-6)
The cantatas for high voice, violin and basso continuo I
Gott will Mensch und sterblich werden, TWV1:694 (Annunciation) [7:55]
Jauchzt, ihr Christen, seid vergnügt, TWV1:955 (3rd Sunday after Easter) [11:52]
Erwachet, entreißt euch den sündlichen Träumen, TWV1:584 (for Exaudi) [10:28]
Schmücket das frohe Fest mit Mayen, TWV1:1256 (Whit Monday) [8:52]
Die Kinder des Höchsten sind rufende Stimmen, TWV1:349 St John the Baptist) [10:01]
Packe dich, gelähmter Drache, TWV1:1222 (St Michael) [10:30]
Bergen Barokk
First complete recording
Pdf booklet with texts and translations included
TOCCATA CLASSICS TOCCC0102 [59:41] – from toccataclassics.com (mp3 and lossless) or stream from Naxos Music Library

Two pieces of very good news first: this latest volume is well up to the standard of its four predecessors and toccataclassics.com now offer their downloads, formerly available only in 192kb/s mp3, in 320kb/s mp3 with lossless flac at a small premium, commensurate with what you would expect to pay from other providers.

On some of the earlier volumes the cantatas were more akin to what we would expect from a Bach cantata, but all these are for a single soprano soloist. The solo singing from Mona Julsrud is excellent – ethereal in quality to such an extent that I’d place her not far off Emma Kirkby – but diction is a real problem, to the point of inaudibility, which is ironic since care has been taken to pronounce German as it would have been in Telemann’s time. The notes even make the point that Telemann required clear diction. That apart, the lossless version sounds very well indeed.

Recording of the Month
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)

Clavierübung III
Stephen Farr (Metzler Organ, Trinity College, Cambridge) – rec. 3-4 April 2013. DDD
Pdf booklet includes chorale texts and full organ specification
RESONUS RES10120 [105:08] – for release by resonusclassics.com (mp3, aac and lossless)

I received this hot off the press little over a month after the recording had been made. It won’t be generally available until July 2013 but it’s such an important release that I had to include it in this edition of DL News. I’ve been looking forward to its release since it was announced – I mentioned it in my review of the very fine but very different organ recital of music by Lennox and Michael Berkeley in 2013/7 DL News. As on Kay Johansen’s highly regarded recording (Hänssler 92.101), the works from Clavierübung are bookended by the Prelude and Fugue, BWV522, and the four Duetti, BWV802-805 are also included.

All lovers of Bach’s music should be prepared to order this new Resonus recording in advance, even if you already have a recording of the Clavierübung, such as the one included in the Teldec-Warner Complete Works which I recently reviewed in USB format: Recording of the Month – review – or Kevin Bowyer’s complete survey for Nimbus, available on CD or on mp3: Bargain of the Monthreview. My colleague Byzantion has also reviewed the Nimbus set – review – and I’m indebted to him for being able to point the impecunious and those who like to compare towards a completely free set of Bach organ music, performed by James Kibbie of UMich for download in aac format – here.

For those wanting just a single-CD selection from Clavierübung III, there’s a fine version on Maya from Malcolm Proud on another Metzler organ – review – but I’m not going to make detailed comparisons with that or the classic Helmut Walcha or the Teldec or Nimbus recordings because I was so completely sold on this new recording that I have no real reservations. In the space of two days I’ve listened to two recordings which have bowled me over – this and a Beulah reissue of Furtwängler performing Brahms Fourth Symphony, which I’m planning to review in a separate DL News dedicated to Beulah’s recent album releases (2PD72 – from iTunes or Amazon).

The Furtwängler Brahms shines through what remains a rather crumbly recording despite Beulah’s usual first-rate efforts but this Bach recording needs no apologies. I received a variety of formats for review and chose to listen to the highest quality 24-bit/96kHz flac. Resonus usually offer mp3, aac and 16-bit flac; for higher quality you normally have to turn to eclassical.com, which may also entail a brief wait. The sound is excellent and the quality of the release is heightened by the excellent notes in the pdf booklet, which include the German texts of the chorales on which Bach wrote organ preludes and a specification of the Metzler organ at Trinity.

I also downloaded the mp3 version of this recording for burning to CD for use in the car but I fear that Bach playing of this quality may prove too excitable for that purpose and lead to dangerous driving. When it’s dragged to a USB stick and played via the USB socket of my amplifier, you’d hardly think this was mere mp3.

Recording of the Month
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)

Piano Concerto No.17 in G, K453 [30:10]
Piano Concerto No.27 in B flat, K595 [29:09]
Angela Hewitt (piano)
Orchestra da Camera di Mantova/Hannu Lintu – rec. July 2011. DDD
Pdf booklet included
HYPERION CDA67919 [59:19] – from hyperion-records.co.uk (mp3, 16– and 24-bit lossless) [K595/ii available on free Hyperion Sampler HYP201305]

These two Mozart concertos may not be quite top of the tree in my book – that would be No.23, K488, with its nearest neighbours as close runners-up – and I already have so many recordings of each that I recently cleared out my CDs of Jenö Jandó’s Mozart concertos (Naxos), but I predict that I shall be regularly playing these new versions. This is Mozart performance of the highest order – but I expected that before even the first note began to play on the basis of Angela Hewitt’s earlier successes on Hyperion. With even better music here than on her earlier disc of Nos. 6, 8 and 9 – review and October 2011/2 DL Roundup – a different conductor, good recording and Hyperion’s usual quality booklet of notes, this deserves a strong recommendation.

The slightly short playing time is reflected in the download price – only £7.85 even for the 24-bit.

Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Mass No.19 in d minor, K626 (Requiem)
Elin Manahan Thomas (soprano), Christine Rice (mezzo), James Gilchrist (tenor), Christopher Purves (bass)
The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge
Academy of Ancient Music/Stephen Cleobury
Pdf booklet with texts and translations included
KINGS KGS0002 [2 CDs: 128:22] – from classicsonline.com (mp3) or stream from Naxos Music Library

The 17th-century writer Sir Thomas Browne named two things that it would be very interesting to know but which were ultimately unknowable: What song the sirens sang [to Odysseus] or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women. To that list I can add the question of what version of the Mozart Requiem is the best; the answer is equally desirable and equally unfathomable. The Naxos Music Library alone lists dozens of versions, of which the most recent is from Stephen Cleobury, the second release on King’s own label.

The new recording tries to be all things in offering the conventional Süssmayr completion together with other versions of what Mozart didn’t complete as appendices: Maunder’s Amen, Levin and Beyer’s Sanctus, Druce’s Benedictus, Levin’s Cum sanctis tuis and Finnissy’s Lacrimosa. So far so good, especially as the performance is fine, but I think that King’s have made a mistake in offering a second 66-minute disc as part of the deal, an audio documentary on the work. That inevitably doubles the cost for the sake of something that most will want to hear only once.

I enjoyed the performance, especially as, unlike the recent rival from New College, Oxford, where the soloists are drawn from the choir, professionals are employed. I thought the New College version – again, an own-label production – good of its kind (October 2011/2 Download Roundup), but John Quinn was less impressed – review – and the use of professionals, especially a soprano rather than a treble, on the new recording makes a great deal of difference.

The King’s choir sings well, if with some inevitable very slight shortcomings in the treble department, and the direction is vigorous. The download sound is good and the booklet is included, but on disc the main programme is offered on SACD and it’s available from online dealers for little more (in some cases less: currently £11.75 from one dealer) than the classicsonline.com price of £15.99.

So can I answer that initial question? Only by pointing to a number of very good versions. If push comes to shove I go for Neville Marriner’s Philips recording, now available again as a Decca Virtuoso download (no CD in the UK: £4.99 from 7digital.com). The mp3 sound is very good, but if you insist on lossless flac, that will cost you £9.49 from deutschegrammophon.com.

Two other Philips recordings remain very good value:


Sir Colin Davis, with the ‘Great’ Mass and Coronation Mass, 438 8002 (2 CDs, budget price)

Peter Schreier, with Ave Verum Corpus and Coronation Mass, 464 7202 (mid price) – sounding just a little ponderous beside more recent recordings but a real bargain at 79 minutes playing time.

Harry Christophers (Coro COR16093) is also well worth considering: October 2011/2 Download Roundup.

Those interested in hearing Süssmayr’s own Requiem alongside his completion of the Mozart should try to hear the Avie recording (AV0047review). It’s available from Naxos Music Library or as a download from classicsonline.com, but without the booklet, which is a shame since the German texts of the Requiem, as authorised for use in parts of Austria, will be unfamiliar.

Bargains of the Month
Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Complete Overtures Volume 1

La gazza ladra [9:50]
Semiramide [12:27]
Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra (Il barbiere di Siviglia) [7:28]
Otello [8:34]
Le siège de Corinthe [9:34]
Sinfonia in D ‘al Conventello’ [4:03]
Ermione* [8:08]
Prague Philharmonic Choir*
Prague Sinfonia Orchestra/Christian Benda – rec. September 2011. DDD.
Pdf booklet included
NAXOS 8.570933 [60:04] – from classicsonline.com (mp3 and lossless)

[‘This is an admirable start to what looks like being a very desirable series.’ See review by John Sheppard and slightly less enthusiastic review by John Whitmore.]

Complete Overtures Volume 2
Guillaume Tell [11:37]
Eduardo e Cristina [9:17]
L’inganno felice [6:07]
La scala di seta [6:01]
Demetrio e Polibio [6:31]
Il Signor Bruschino [4:52]
Sinfonia di Bologna [5:26]
Sigismondo [8:30]
Prague Sinfonia Orchestra/Christian Benda – rec. September 2011. DDD.
Pdf booklet included.
NAXOS 8.570934 [58:21] – from classicsonline.com (mp3 and lossless)

I got to know five of the Rossini overtures long ago from a recording on which Pierino Gamba conducted the LSO – still available as a download from 7digital.com, though I can’t vouch for the quality – and I’ve owned or heard many more since then, but these new Naxos recordings are about as good as it gets. Of the items in common with the older recording, only la Gazza Ladra packs a little less punch than I recall from Gamba.

I have to admit that I’m not the greatest fan of Rossini’s operas – apart from Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Il Turco in Italia and l’Italiana in Algeri, I don’t know them all that well, so perhaps I should repair the omission – but I do very much enjoy the overtures when played with as much panache as they are here.

My reservations are hardly worth mentioning – perhaps the violins could tap their bows a bit more vigorously in the Signor Bruschino Overture and there’s room for at least one more overture on each volume. The recording is very good, especially in lossless format for £1 or $1 extra. If you dislike Naxos’s practice of supplying their lossless flac recordings as one long file, eclassical.com have Volume 1 in mp3 and lossless – here – and will no doubt be adding its successor in due course.

There will be two more volumes to complete the set. If you can’t wait that long, 7digital.com have the ASMF/Neville Marriner 3-disc recording for £15.99 – here. You may also wish to add the Toscanini recording of six Rossini overtures (1956) if you live in a country where copyright laws allow you to download the Naxos Classical Archives release of these (9.80684, not available in the USA).

Felix MENDELSSOHN-BARTHOLDY (1809-1847)
Concerto in d minor for Violin, Piano and Strings, MWVO4 (1823) [35:26]
Polina Leschenko (piano)
Richard Tognetti (violin)
Australian Chamber Orchestra
Octet in E flat, Op. 20/MWV R20 (1825) [30:50]
Members of the Australian Chamber Orchestra
(Richard Tognetti, Helena Rathbone, Satu Vänskä, Rebecca Chan (violins)
Christopher Moore, Nicole Divall (violas)
Timo-Veikko Valve, Julian Thompson (cellos)
Pdf booklet included
BIS-SACD-1984 [66:58] – from eclassical.com (mp3, 16– and 24-bit lossless)

Two works by the youthful genius Mendelssohn, of which the Octet is deservedly well known, the concerto far less so. There are just four recordings of the concerto; this is the only version with this coupling. For two of the others, on Harmonia Mundi, with the a minor Piano Concerto, and Claves with the Violin Concerto see review. There’s an earlier BIS recording on BIS-CD-713, coupled with shorter Mendelssohn works.

I share Dave Billinge’s view that the modern grand piano tends to overshadow proceedings a little too much but I also share his overall recommendation of the performance and recording – review. I enjoyed hearing the earlier work but if it’s just the wonderful Octet that you’re looking for, there are many very fine alternatives which (just) have the edge on the BIS recording, including:

Resonus RES10101: Eroica Quartet and friends – the original unrevised version, well worth having not just for curiosity sake but very well performed and recorded (download only – March 2011/2 DL Roundup)
• Wigmore Hall Live WHL001: Nash Ensemble (with Beethoven Clarinet Trio) – see March 2009 DL Roundup. As well as the emusic.com download listed there, classicsonline.com offer this in better quality mp3 and with booklet for £4.99.

Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
String Quartet No.12 in F, Op.96, (American) [26:40]
Bedřich SMETANA(1824-1884)
String Quartet No.1 in e minor, (From my Life) [26:32]
Tokyo String Quartet (Martin Beaver, Kikuei Ikeda (violins), Kazuhide Isomura (viola), Clive Greensmith (cello)) – rec. February 2006. DDD/DSD.
Pdf booklet included.
HARMONIA MUNDI HMU807429 (37862837) [53:11] – from eclassical.com (mp3, 16 and 24-bit lossless)

The pairing of these two quartets takes us down a well-trod path. I was expecting this valedictory recording from the Tokyo Quartet to be very special and, indeed, I did very much enjoy it, but there is some very strong competition, coupled thus – from the Alban Berg Quartet, download only – or differently.

Perhaps my expectations were too high, but I didn’t immediately warm to this understated account of the American Quartet and I see that at least one other reviewer (not MusicWeb International) thinks the opening movement rather too relaxed. It’s not until the third movement that this performance comes alive for me and then the quality of their playing captures the quirkiness of the music and, here and in the finale, makes up for the slight disappointment earlier.

For satisfaction in every movement, however, though downloads from these sources are available only in mp3 sound, I’m still likely to turn to the Wihan Quartet (with Quartet No.11, Nimbus Alliance NI6114review) or the Pavel Haas Quartet (with No.13, Supraphon SU4038-2: Recording of the Month review and review; November 2011/2 DL Roundup.) Both of these are slightly more generously coupled, too, than the new Harmonia Mundi, which has room to spare for another quartet – I have an old Hungaroton CD with the Bartók Quartet offering the Debussy and Ravel Quartets together with the American Quartet, 74 minutes and at the budget price of £3.99 when it was last available.

The Tokyo Quartet, however, respond much more idiomatically to Smetana’s dramatic quartet – if you don’t know the work, it catalogues the ups and downs of his life, the latter most vividly depicted by the sustained note, almost a screech of despair, which signalled the onset of the composer’s deafness. I hate to use the cliché that it’s a game of two halves and it’s almost worth having the recording for the Smetana alone, though there are other very fine accounts, notably from the Škampa Quartet on another Supraphon recording (with Quartet No.2, SU3740-2) or the Dante Quartet (very good value with Quartet No.2 and Sibelius String Quartet, Hyperion CDA67845review and August 2011/1 DL Roundup).

The contrast between the playful, dancing opening of the finale and that awful screech is well marked on the new recording, though the Tokyo Quartet could make rather more of the horror. The Moyzes Quartet on Naxos play the light-hearted opening a little too seriously and under-play the horror so, although they offer good value with the two quartets plus My Home at budget price, I can’t really recommend them.

The Alban Berg Quartet, recorded live (EMI, download only), in their account of the finale give premonitory warnings of the catastrophe to come but without thereby diminishing the effect of the screech that effectively ended Smetana’s career. With a good account of the American Quartet as coupling, this could be your ideal recommendation, especially as classicsonline.com have it for £6.99 (mp3 only as against $9.57 for the eclassical.com Harmonia Mundi download in mp3 and lossless).

The 24-bit Harmonia Mundi recording is, unusually, at 88.2 kHz, a frequency which Windows doesn’t support, unless you have Windows 8. If you have a DAC and it doesn’t automatically select the right frequency, choose 44.1.

Emmanuel CHABRIER (1841-1894)
Joyeuse marche (c. 1888) [3:40]
Overture to ‘Gwendoline’ (1879-1885) [9:23]
Habañera (c. 1885) [4:11]
España (1883) [6:12]
Lamento (1874) [7:44]
Bourrée fantasque (1897) [6:44]
Suite pastorale (c. 1888) [19:05]
Three movements from ‘L’étoile’ (1877) [8:11]
Two movements from ‘Le Roi malgré lui’ (1884-1887) [12:28]
Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Neeme Järvi
rec. 27-29 June 2012, Victoria Hall, Geneva, Switzerland
Pdf booklet included
CHANDOS CHSA 5122 [77:15] – from theclassicalshop.net (mp3, 16-bit lossless & 24/96 Studio stereo and surround)

Talk about bearding the lion in his den; here Järvi confronts Ansermet in repertoire for which the latter was justly famous (review). Järvi’s recent Raff recording with the OSR impressed me a great deal (review) as did the Victoria Hall’s new, cutting-edge recording facilities. I do find this conductor rather po-faced at times, not to mention rhythmically inflexible – as in his Suppé collection – so I wondered how he would fare against Ansermet, that most natural and spontaneous of musicians. The latter’s devotion to Chabrier is well known, and his breathtaking and buoyant performance of España – recorded in fine stereo in 1964 – is peerless.

Undaunted, Järvi starts with a bracing – and rhythmically supple – Joyeuse marche, in which the timps, bass drum and percussive interjections are superbly caught. Balances are very pleasing and there’s plenty of fine detail too. Even more intoxicating is the overture to Chabrier’s ‘serious’ opera Gwendoline, whose turbulent opening instantly recalls Bizet’s Carmen. It also has a jaunty interlude that brings to mind an Ealing comedy before it builds to a big, surf-breaking climax that stays this side of good taste – but only just. I’ve not heard this piece before and I played it several times, if only to marvel at the polished playing and at the laugh-out-loud excitement of the closing bars.

Järvi follows that with a silky and sensitive Habañera – goodness, how well the OSR are playing for him – although I much prefer the stronger dynamic contrasts and sheer passion of Ansermet’s more idiomatic account. It says something about the quality of the Järvi /OSR combination that their detailed and very well sprung España comes close to supplanting Ansermet’s. Almost, but not quite, although the ‘tingle factor’ in the Chandos recording is hard to beat. So different from the elegiac Lamento, graced with some lovely cor anglais playing from Alexandre Emard; not a great work, but a little gem nonetheless. Ditto Mottl’s transcription of the vigorous Bourrée fantasque, even if it doesn’t feel much like Chabrier.

The four miniatures of the Suite pastorale are Chabrier’s transcriptions, and they have all the delicacy and point one would expect from him. As ever, Järvi and the OSR sound ultra-sophisticated, which isn’t always desirable here. That’s certainly true of the village dance, which lacks Ansermet’s delectable perk and rustic charm. That said Sous-bois has a rich Burgundian flavour that seems entirely apt, and the little Scherzo-valse is crisply done. All very pleasing – and well played – but Järvi’s suite isn’t as fresh or as invigorating as Ansermet’s. Remarkably Decca’s elderly recording doesn’t yield much to Chandos’s in terms of detail, presence and timbral accuracy, although the tuttis are clearly strained at times.

What I miss most in Järvi’s Chabrier – and in some of his more recent recordings – is a sense of personality. Sometimes he’s just too detached, so that incidental charm and colouristic touches barely register. The Offenbachian overture to the opéra bouffe L’Étoile is a case in point; it only sparkles intermittently. Similarly the two entr’actes are deftly done but they’re woefully short on character. That said, Järvi makes amends with an urgent, nicely shaped account of the dancing Fête polonaise from Chabrier’s opéra-comique about reluctant royalty, Le Roi malgré lui. Predictably Ansermet’s performance is more sharply drawn and his rhythms are emphatically accented. The same applies to these competing versions of the Danse slave.

The lion may have been bearded in his den but he’s still the undisputed king of this repertoire. If you prefer your Chabrier filtered through a metropolitan lens – urbane, streamlined – then Järvi’s your man. However, if you like some extra swing to your rhythms and a vigorous stomp to your bucolic dances – some dirt on its boots, as it were – then Ansermet is the one to go for. When the latter’s Chabrier appears as a high-res download – Universal, please note – it will be even more desirable than it is already. Still, Järvi is well worth hearing, not least for the glorious Gwendoline.

Dan Morgan
http://twitter.com/mahlerei

Recommended Bargain Buy
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Tzigane [11:00]
Édouard LALO (1823-1892) Symphonie espagnole, Op.21 [32:51]
Karl Amadeus HARTMANN (1905-1963) Concerto Funèbre for violin and string orchestra * [21:51]
Ida Haendel (violin)
Andre Gertler (violin)*
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Karel Ančerl– rec. 1964 and 1968. ADD.
SUPRAPHON ANčERL GOLD SU3677-2 [65:44] – from emusic.com (mp3)

[‘A confident recommendation.’ See review by Ian Lace and review by Terry Barfoot.]

The Lalo Symphonie – music for violin and orchestra at about its most easy-going, from 1873 – and the rather tough Hartmann concerto from that ominous year 1939 make strange bedfellows. The Lalo has appeared on various Supraphon releases, more obviously coupled, but these are classic vintage performances and the recordings still sound fine, though some may be troubled by the close balance of the soloist in Lalo and Ravel.

At £4.20 or less, the emusic.com download is the least expensive that I can find – amazon.com’s price is almost as much as buying the physical CD – and the bit-rate of around 236kb/s is within shouting distance of amazon.co.uk’s usual 256kb/s.

For alternatives, more logically coupled:

Lalo:

• Eloquence 462 4792: Arthur Grumiaux; Lamoureux O/Rosenthal (with Saint-Saëns, Chausson and Ravel) – review. The earlier reissue on Philips Concert Classics remains my benchmark.

Hartmann:

• Hyperion CDA67547: Alina Ibragimova/Britten Sinfonia (with solo violin works by Hartmann) – review and Download News 2012/24.
• Warner Apex 092740812-2: Thomas Zehetmair/Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie (with Berg and JanáčekViolin Concertos, at budget price) – review.

For more Lalo:

Overture Le Roi d’Ys; Violin Concerto in F, Op.20; Scherzo in d minor; Concerto russe, Op.29: Chandos CHAN9759: Olivier Charlier (violin); BBC Philharmonic/Yan Pascal Tortelier – rec. 1999. DDD. [71:18] – with pdf booklet from theclassicalshop.net (mp3 and lossless) or stream from Naxos Music Library

Fantaisie norvégienne Hyperion Helios CDH55396: Philippe Graffin (violin); Ulster Orchestra/Yan Pascal Tortelier (with Lalo Guitarre, Fauré, Saint-Saens, etc.: Rare French Works for violin and orchestra) – from hyperion.co.uk (mp3 and lossless): see DL Roundup March 2011/2.

None of this music has quite the immediate appeal of the Symphonie espagnole, but it’s all very enjoyable, especially the Concerto