Charlotte Gardner selects three outstanding classical albums to listen to this month - including new releases from Sandrine Piau and the Quantum Clarinet Trio - in her latest article and playlist for the dCS EditTags: Music,
Welcome to our first Classical Choices of 2024. Each month, we’ll continue to highlight outstanding new recordings from across the classical music world, whilst also presenting a must-listen historical piece from the archives, in an exclusive article and playlist for the dCS Edit.
This year is the 150th anniversary of Gustav Holt’s birth. To mark the occasion, our January 2024 selection opens with a 1926 recording of the London Symphony Orchestra performing ‘Jupiter’ from Holt’s orchestral suite The Planets, under the baton of his friend Ralph Vaughan Williams. The recording quality is rather bone dry, but there’s much to enjoy here. Vaughan Williams doesn’t hang around, and the piece’s urgent momentum is met with smartly nimble definition by LSO’s players.
From there, it’s on to this month’s new releases, which include a ravishing programme of orchestrated French mélodies from soprano Sandrine Piau, a debut from the young Quantum Clarinet Trio, and stunning new readings of Brahms’ two piano concertos from Simon Trpčeski, Cristian Măcelaru and the WDR Sinfonieorchester.
Sandrine Piau, Orchestre Victor Hugo, Jean-Francois Verdier
In 2021, French soprano Sandrine Piau recorded Clair Obscur for Alpha, a programme of German lieder with orchestra which explored the antagonism between light and shadow. In Reflet, she turns to the mélodies of her homeland, through the lens of an idea whose many facets include, as Piau notes, ‘the idea of an echo, the shadow of a disquieting double, of a plural, diffracted sparkle…’.
Repertoire-wise, it’s a headily sensuous line-up of composer and poet relationships – names such as Berlioz and Gauthier, Hugo and Verlaine, Duparc and Koechlin, Ravel and Mallarmé – and the resultant readings are equally so.
Piau opens with Berlioz’s setting of Gauthier’s La spectre de la rose, which describes a young woman’s bedroom filled by the scent of the rose she wore at her first ball, embodying the reflected image of an immortal love. It sounds exquisite: Piau’s every word is articulated with silvery pure-toned, crystal clarity; the orchestra under Jean-François Verdier is ravishingly lucid-textured, deftly developing the drama (listen to the fluidly sensuous drive of the lower strings’ throbbing figure from 1’39”), and with dance seemingly always in the music’s thoughts. Further beautiful orchestral moments include the way the myriad solo instrument contributions to the dialogue are painted and shaped, rippling piano also in the mix, over Koechlin’s nostalgic Haraucourt setting evoking an ancient faery world, Aux temps des fées.
Charmingly, the programme climaxes not with a French composer but with Benjamin Britten’s song cycle, Quatre Chansons Françaises on texts by Hugo and Verlaine - a piece written when he was just fourteen years old, in honour of his parent’s wedding anniversary, in a language sounding both palpably French, and with an English elfin spin all of his own. Of the four, ‘Sagesse’ is particularly striking from these musicians, the oboe curling around Piau’s floating and soaring voice, with a gorgeously glassy luminosity to the strings and woodwind sections as a whole.
I’ve selected the Britten for this month’s playlist, preceded by Le spectre de la Rose, plus the time-suspended magic of Koechlin’s Épiphanie.
Brahms, Kahn and Fruhling
Quantum Clarinet Trio
Permanent trios are rare in the classical landscape and clarinet trios are rarer still. In 2013, cellist Johannes Przgodda, clarinetist Elena Veronesi and pianist Bokyung Kim met at the Salzburg University Mozarteum, and felt a chemistry when they played together. They went on to form a formidable trio, whose achievements include winning third prize in the 2020 Fischoff Chamber Music Competition, and being supported by the Commissioner for Culture and Media of the Federal Republic of Germany in 2022-2023.
The trio has now released a very enjoyable debut album on Hänssler Classics, in co-production with Deutschlandfunk Kultur. Brahms’s A minor Clarinet Trio is already a crowded market, but the Quantum Trio’s reading thoroughly holds its own against the existing back catalogue. There’s some compelling handling of the music’s ebb and flow here, its more tensely turbulent moments coming with ear-grabbing polished energy. The three musicians’ respective tones are also exceptionally attractive, and slot together marvellously; Przgodda’s gently tactile, amber-coloured sound is especially distinctive.
The remainder of the disc is given over to two largely forgotten younger admirers of Brahms, Carl Frühling (1868-1937) with his own A minor Clarinet Trio, clearly written under Brahms’s influence, and Robert Kahn (1865-1951), whose Serenade in F minor was originally scored for oboe, horn and piano. Both men suffered in their time for being Jewish (Frühling died penniless despite being a talented musician, and composing over 100 works, whilst Kahn was forced to leave his native Germany in 1939, after the Nazi party prohibited the publication and performance of his music). Their music remains largely overlooked because they weren’t great composers, but the polished, expressive readings on this album demonstrate how attractive these two works are, and what a beautifully complementary pairing they make alongside Brahms himself. It’s Frühling that I’ve selected for our January playlist.
Brahms: Piano Concertos
Simon Trpčeski, Cristian Măcelaru, WDR Sinfonieorchester
On paper alone, this release is worthy of attention. Brahms’s two epic, emotionally multifaceted piano concertos, with one of the piano world’s most technically accomplished poets as soloist, renewing a collaboration with Cristian Măcelaru and the WDR Sinfonieorchester which previously led to a widely acclaimed pair of Shostakovich concerto readings. The resulting recording, I’m pleased to report, is pure gold from start to finish.
Like the Violin Concerto, Brahms’s two piano concertos are not piano solos with orchestral accompaniment, but effectively symphonies played out as tightly knit dialogue between soloist and orchestra. To that canvas, the soloist is required to bring not just a formidable degree of technical accomplishment, but a huge array of expression, together with marathon-ready stamina (Brahms jokingly dubbed the Second ‘The Long Terror’). The rich, huge scoring would suggest an orchestral sound of warmth, might and majesty, yet there’s also a tremendous amount of inner detail that needs to shine through, as well as certain points where the scoring drops down to effectively become chamber music. While these works contain some of the biggest-boned, most turbulent music Brahms ever wrote for orchestra, they also feature writing of hymn-like peace, almost Mendelssohn-light puckishness, and pure romance.
Those who instantly jump to the Second Concerto’s famous opening pastoral horn call to gauge whether a recording delivers all of the above will be well pleased with the soft, wide warmth, clarity and flow found in this reading – although the First’s tensely explosive opening is just as effective a herald for the ride there is to come.
Both slow movements are sublime, the finales bristle with pacy excitement, and there isn’t a single passage across either concerto that doesn’t feel perfectly weighted, coloured and contoured, with optimal balancing of parts and tempi, and with Trpčeski himself supremely exciting, polished and kaleidoscopic, and always in close communion with the orchestra. You’ll find the First Concerto on this month’s playlist, but do seek out the Second yourself.