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Classical Choices: January 2023 - Curated by Charlotte Gardner

Charlotte Gardner's latest pick of outstanding classical releases includes works from Timothy Ridout, BBC Symphony Orchestra & Martyn Brabbins, Rosalind Ventris & Vilde Frang.

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Welcome to the first classical dCS Only the Music of 2023, and when the viola is the star of two of this month’s new releases – Elgar and Bruch from Timothy Ridout, and a cornucopia of short works from Rosalind Ventris in her debut solo recording – the playlist opens with a 1927 recording of one the greatest viola players of the past, Lionel Tertis, playing his own transcription of the Schubert Lied, ‘Du bist die Ruh.’ The third and final new release is then violinist Vilde Frang with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen under Pekka Kuusisto, pairing the Beethoven and Stravinsky violin concertos. It’s an immensely strong trio of new albums with which to begin a new year, and I hope you feel the same as you listen.

Elgar: Viola Concerto, Bloch: Suite for Viola and Orchestra

Timothy Ridout, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Martyn Brabbins

Harmonia Mundi

You have read that right. Elgar’s Viola Concerto. Or, to be absolutely exact, the viola version of Elgar’s Cello Concerto, prepared in 1929 by the great English viola player Lionel Tertis – who spent his career expanding his instrument’s solo repertoire – and approved by Elgar, who then conducted its premiere himself in 1930. Yet despite those cast-iron credentials, this viola transcription remains a rarely-spotted animal both onstage and in the recording studio, meaning that to have this recording from Timothy Ridout, arguably one of the most exciting new viola voices in generations, is good news indeed.

As for what it actually sounds like, it goes without saying that the piece transfers beautifully onto the viola’s burnished alto sound, but it is also a subtly different work, thanks to the fact that, in places where the soloist’s lines would have sat in the viola’s middle registers and thus unable to rise above the orchestral sound, Tertis transposed them up an octave. Which perhaps doesn’t sound like much, but in fact at points feels profoundly transformational as the soloist line suddenly shines in intense, penetrating soprano song – and you can always count on Ridout to sing. 

The origins of Bloch’s Suite for Viola and Orchestra of 1938 are then the reverse, in that while it was written for the viola, a version for cello followed. Those who associate Bloch with a strongly Jewish language – SchelomoFrom Jewish Life... – will spot that this characteristic is more muted in this suite. Certainly it’s there, but Bloch’s original inspiration was in fact the Orient, and the result is the sorts of lushly exotic, ecstatically glittering orchestral textures, out of which pop colourful-timbred solos, that we tend to associate with the likes of Scriabin or Szymanowski. Essentially, it’s a gift for any orchestra wanting to really get its teeth into something; and the BBC Symphony under Martyn Brabbins is just as much the star of the show as Ridout here, over this burning, crisply vibrant, dramatically-compelling reading. It’s the Bloch I’ve given you for the playlist.

Sola: Music for Viola by Women Composers

Rosalind Ventris 


When on earth did we last have two young viola players releasing top-drawer albums in the space of a single month? Yet here is yet another Brit, Rosalind Ventris, releasing an immensely attention-grabbing debut solo album. And know up top that, while its title is certainly in perfect tune with the current zeitgeist, the gender of these composers is immaterial in terms of the actual listening experience. This is quite simply just great music, to the extent that it’s staggering that these pieces are so little-known. 

The works here are predominantly a British and Irish selection of mostly twentieth century voices – although not entirely, because the youngest composer here is Amanda Feery (b 1984). Feery’s Boreal is one of the disc’s premiere recordings, the other two by Thea Musgrave (b 1928) and Sally Beamish (b 1956). There’s also the premiere recording of Ventris’s own arrangement of 1 1949 work by Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-1969), Kaprys Poski(Polish Caprice), originally for the violin.

That caprice serves as Ventris’s curtain-opener, and it’s a knock-out: beginning as a huskily glowing, low-register legato lament, then moving upwards into gloriously luminous soprano tones, and onwards into a toe-tapping dance leaping between rhythms, registers, timbres and tone colours, painting a compelling emotional world as it goes; and while Ventris’s technical aplomb is hardly hidden under a bushel over this piece, it’s out front and centre, in all its polished glory, in works such as Beamish’s 1998 competition piece, Penillion, Elisabeth Lutyens’s (1906-1983) ear-grabbing Echo of the Wind from 1981, and the fast-changing rhythms, moods and tempi of Elizabeth Maconchy’s (1907-1994) Five Sketches from 1983. Not that virtuosity tends to be the take-home point as you listen, given that ultimately it’s always at the service of the music’s soul.

For the playlist, I’ve given you the Bacewicz, followed by Boreal – an evocation of an Antarctic landscape, blending the influences of Irish and Nordic folk music for strings.

Beethoven Stravinsky Violin Concertos

Vilde Frang

Warner Classics

A new release from Vilde Frang always brings something new and interesting to the table, whatever the repertoire, and this very much fits that pattern. For starters, while the Beethoven and Stravinsky coupling may not be a complete first – Hilary Hahn has done it too – it’s certainly fresh-feeling. Although really, the most exciting pairing is the one between Frang and Pekka Kuusisto, because Kuusisto is equally an artist guaranteed to be thinking outside of the box, his concerts fizzing whether he’s on the conductor’s podium or on his own violin.

The Beethoven comes first, and the chamber tightness and sense of friendship between the players (the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen and Kuusisto are themselves a well-oiled machine) is obvious from the off, and profound in its musical payback. There’s a fabulous easy fluidity to the way they’ve managed the first movement’s succession of episodes. It also feels like their taking risks, being led by the moment, and always there’s a strong sense of Frang and the orchestra operating more like a chamber ensemble than as orchestra and soloist. Drop in, for example, to the minor-keyed episode at about 11’00” and you’ll hear: the bassoons’ sequential passages, to which the violin is actually more countermelody, unusually well picked out; a supple fluidity and huge range of dynamic to Frang’s own lines; Kuusisto taking the dynamic down to a hushed whisper of knife-edge tension; upon the timpani entry, the tiniest uplift of tempo creating a seismic shift of mood.

And Frang’s later duet with the timpani during the cadenza – these are the cadenzas Beethoven himself wrote, for his later piano transcription – is a proper duet, the two superglued together, the rhythmic bounce of Frang’s double-stops clearly mirroring the timpani’s own neat bounce. Then anyone expecting great things of the Rondo finale under the baton of a conductor famed for his own folk playing isn’t going to be disappointed. Perhaps slightly contrary to expectations, this isn’t a rustic, semi-wild whirl of a Rondo, but one of twinkle-toed, sprite-like elegance – a perfect fit for Frang, making it even more delicious as Kussisto lets the first oboe playfully slide in its tongue-in-cheek extra two pennies’ worth of embellishment at the top of certain phrases, answering Frang.

It’s all the sort of tight chamber work, weightless delivery, lucid-textured sparkle, ensemble virtuosity and sense of humour that Stravinsky’s playful, neoclassical Violin Concerto of 1931 needs to really fly. And it does. This is one of the most convincing, personable recordings I’ve yet heard.

 I’ve given you the Beethoven Rondo here, followed by the Stravinsky concerto’s opening Toccata.

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