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Classical Choices: August 2023 - Curated by Charlotte Gardner

Charlotte Gardner’s latest pick of classical recordings includes a new collaboration from James Ehnes and Andrew Armstrong, a 1740s London-themed programme from La Rêveuse and a collection of Finnish overtures from Rumon Gamba and Oulu Sinfonia.

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This month’s Classical Choices arrives as the BBC Proms season draws to a close. There has been much to love this year—from the musical performances to the sight of London’s Royal Albert Hall once again filled with visitors.

As for musical highlights, Sir Simon Rattle’s final performance with the London Symphony Orchestra as its Musical Director felt unsurpassable in its combination of artistry and emotion. 

Rattle and the orchestra put their all into Mahler’s Symphony No. 9—a downbeat choice, perhaps, with its death-haunted score, but in practice, it proved the most perfect, beautiful and profoundly moving way to end his tenure.  (UK readers can tune in and watch via BBC iPlayer.)

In honour of this event, this month’s Classical Choices opens not with a historical recording, but a recommendation to seek out the concluding Danse générale from the LSO’s EP of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé Suite No. 2, released earlier this year on LSO Live. (Sadly the EP is not available on Qobuz or TIDAL, but you can find further details about the recording here. You can also find out more about LSO Live recordings here.)


James Ehnes & Andrew Armstrong


In recent years, Canadian violinist James Ehnes has focused his recording energies on sonatas. He teamed up with pianist Andrew Armstrong to release a series of albums featuring Beethoven’s violin sonatas in an award-winning collaboration, and recorded the Ysaÿe solo sonatas during lockdowns. 

His latest release–another collaboration with Armstrong–is a beautiful cornucopia of composers and styles. Recorded in various times and places across 2015 and 2016, Mythes begins with two substantial works. First up is Karol Szymanowski’s three short tone poems, ‘Mythes’. Here, Armstrong’s gorgeously balances perfumed headiness with delicacy with his opening wash of colour. Ehnes enters in kind with his own balance of cool, upper-register purity and huskier shading.

Next comes Handel’s Violin Sonata in D Major HWV 371 in a warmly vibrato’d, attractively embellished ‘modern’ reading from Ehnes, supported by Armstrong with sparingly-pedalled simplicity. 

The remaining two thirds of the programme are an equally contrasting smorgasbord of shorts, ranging from James Newton Howard’s tensely ticking 133...At Least, to Samuel Dushkin’s lilting Sicilienne. Across this section in particular, you get the sense of Ehnes really loosening up and having some fun. His playing is as technically pristine and polished as ever, but in vignettes such as Suk’s three-minute ‘Burleska’, or Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ (into which Ehnes isn’t afraid to dig grittily in at points), his sparkling lightness of touch is emotional as much as technical. For the playlist, I’ve given you the Szymanowski, the Newton Howard, and Kreisler’s arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Chanson sans paroles’.

London circa 1740: Handel’s Musicians

La Rêveuse, Florence Bolton and Benjamin Perrot

Harmonia Mundi

The latest instalment of French baroque ensemble La Rêveuse’s series devoted to 18th century British music introduces the leading Italian and German virtuosos whom Handel invited to play in his orchestra, revving English musical life up a gear in the process, before moving on to the work of James Oswald–a Scottish composer who accomplished the notable feat of making his country’s music fashionable in London’s drawing rooms. 

Handel’s virtuosi are represented with the famous Recorder Concerto in F by Giuseppe Sammartini (Handel’s principal oboist and a celebrated recorder player); the Sonata for Solo Viola da Gaba by Pietro Castrucci (who served 20 years as Handel’s concertmaster), and Concerto No 6 for German Flute by Carl Friedrich Weidemann, who joined Handel’s orchestra around 1725. 

From there it’s on to Oswald, who was born in the small Fife village of Crail, and rose to become a sought-after musician at the court of King George III, (an accomplishment helped in no small part by the popularity of his polished reinterpretations of Scots folk tunes). Also on the programme are Handel’s own Trio Sonata No 5 Op.2, and the famous Hornpipe he composed for the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. 

It’s a fantastic mix of strings and woodwind, high galant elegance and folkier lilt, performed with an abundance of finesse-filled charm. The Sammartini recorder concerto is a notable highlight, with its beautifully light, lucid grace, and lovely balance between the La Rêveuse musicians and soloist Sébastien Marq, gliding through his often dizzyingly rapid passagework with silkily suave multicolours. 

‘Up in the Morning Early’ from Oswald’s The Caledonian Pocket Companion, which also features Marq, is another of the programme’s highlights, its superglued chamber playing awash with exquisite shaping, shading and embellishments. It’s those two works I’ve given you for this month’s playlist. 

Overtures from Finland

Oulu Sinfonia, Rumon Gamba


Oulu Sinfonia and Rumon Gamba’s collection of Finnish overtures opens with a sure-fire crowd pleaser: Sibelius’s Karelia.  

It’s a great curtain-raiser: Gamba and the Oulu Sinfonia bring a dark, suave, energetically poised tension to the piece’s opening bars, and further on, a deftly theatrical and architecturally cohesive realisation of its dramatic arc. But the real draw of this programme is the flock of far lesser-played overtures that follow–fruits of the nationalism that blossomed in Finland’s creative arts scene from the middle of the 19 century, gorgeously handled here by Gamba and his musicians, who make the most of their striking timbres and textures.  

Among the featured composers, one name that might be familiar to some is Robert Kajanus, Finnish music’s leading light before Sibelius became established. His Overtura sinfonica (1926) is presented here with bright, muscular bite and rhythmic crispness. 

The rest of the programme is an utter voyage of discovery. Take Uuno Klami’s scampering concert overture, Nummisuutarit, based on Aleksis Kivi’s 1864 play, The Cobblers on the Heath–another work structured as a chain of contrasting sections that need to dovetail without awkward gear-changes, featuring language that is perhaps even more dramatically vivid than Karelia. The Oulu musicians throw themselves into the score’s tight chamber interplay, quirky timbral contrasts, and fantastically colourful solos.  

The remainder of the programme is no less fascinating, and includes works by Ernst Mielck (a Kajanus mentee who cruelly died aged just 21), Leevi Madetoja (one of Sibelius’s private pupils), Armas Järnefelt (Sibelius’s friend, fellow student and eventual brother-in-law), Erkki Melartin, Selim Palmgren, and Heino Kaski.  

I’ve given you Nummisuutarit, followed by Melartin’s Overture to ‘Prinsessa Ruusunen’, written for a 1905 production of Zachris Topelius’s Sleeping Beauty play at the Finnish Theatre.

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