Home Blog

Our top recommendations for May 2019

Each month, at iClassical, we pick three albums, either new releases or reissues, that we regard as being worthy of your special attention. We nominate one recent release as our overall CD of the Month. We also highlight a bargain choice, that offers exceptional value for money, and a collectors’ choice for those wishing to branch out a little!

Click on (or tap) the album cover to read our original review.

CD of the Month – Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Opp. 109, 110 & 111 (Steven Osborne)

Bargain Choice – Rachmaninov: 24 Préludes (Boris Giltburg)l

Collectors’ Choice – Weinberg: Symphonies Nos. 2 & 21 (Gidon Kremer (violin), Kremerata Baltica, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla)

Discover our previous recommendations here.

Is this Steven Osborne’s finest recording?

Beethoven: Piano Sonatas Opp. 109, 110 & 111

Steven Osborne (piano)
Steven Osborne

Steven Osborne is a Scottish pianist who has become one of Britain’s most treasured musicians. His insightful interpretations show a degree of musical depth lacking in many of his contemporaries. On this his twenty-fifth release on the Hyperion label he takes on Beethoven’s final three piano sonatas – three works which represent Beethoven at the peak of his powers and imagination. If anyone can persuade me that I should add another reading of these three pillars of the repertory then I guess Steven Osborne is the pianist to do it!

So how does this recording live up to my forecast? In a nutshell I have to say that the performances of all three works fully lived up to, or even exceeded, my high expectations. In the opening Piano Sonata No. 30 in E major, Op. 109,  composed near the same time as the Missa Solemnis and his famous ‘Choral’ Symphony, Osborne effectively conveys the multi-dimensional nature of the piece and in the long slow movement he effectively brings out contrasts between the variations. In the first movement of the Piano Sonata No. 31 in A flat major, Op. 110 Steven Osborne plays the roving left-hand line in the first-movement development with just the right amount of eloquence and in the final movement he builds to a powerful climax (that will come as no surprise to those who have heard his performance of the Hammerklavier Sonata). The CD ends with the monumental two-movement Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111. In this work, as in the other two, Osborne plays with great clarity and drive. Somehow Steven Osborne tells you something new about these familiar pieces and reveals hidden truths about the music that one has somehow previously missed. Steven Osborne has his own individual take on these works but he does not impose his personality on the pieces. Listening to this recording, as with his concert performances, you are so much more aware of the music than the performer.

So this might well be considered Steven Osborne’s greatest recording to date and it more than stands comparison with any other recent alternatives. Even if you own multiple versions of these works you really should add this album to your collection.

iClassical rating:

Hyperion recordings are not available on any streaming platform but extracts can be played from their website.

Spirited performances make a strong case for Grace Williams chamber works

Grace Williams: Chamber Music

Madeleine Mitchell (violin), London Chamber Ensemble

Grace Williams (1906–1977) was one of the first professional Welsh composers of the twentieth-century to attain significant national recognition, although her work remains virtually unknown outside of Britain. Many of her remarkably distinctive pieces are directly inspired by Wales and its culture. I first came across this composer via her Trumpet Concerto¹ performed by Howard Snell with the London Symphony Orchestra and Sir Charles Groves on a Lyrita CD – one that would provide an excellent introduction to Williams’ work. On the same label there is also a fine account of both her Symphony No. 2 and Ballads for Orchestra by the late Vernon Handley conducting the BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra.

Prior to this release I was unaware of any of the chamber works that Grace Williams had written. Perhaps the neglect of these works is in part due to the highly self-critical composer marking a number of her chamber work scores as “not worth performing GW”. Fortunately for us after discovering and playing the Violin Sonata, Madeleine Mitchell was minded to research further chamber works from this neglected composer thus allowing us to encounter this intriguing release containing premiere recordings of six works all of which were previously unpublished (with the exception of the Violin Sonata).

The Violin Sonata is a punchy, three-movement work that Williams wrote whilst she was in her twenties. This piece, lasting just short of twenty minutes, in which Mitchell is joined by Konstantin Lapshin, gets the collection of to a fine start. The Sextet for Oboe, Trumpet, Piano & String Trio, written just a year later, was one of the few chamber works that the composer felt worthy of performing! It is certainly a substantial piece that contains some virtuoso writing. The players of the London Chamber Ensemble give a spirited performance of this work and pay careful attention to the balance of the instruments – never allowing Williams’ beloved trumpet to over-power the other instruments here or in the somewhat Stravinsky-esque Suite for Nine Instruments that follows. Romanza is a charmingly simple short piece for oboe and bass clarinet played beautifully here by John Anderson and Andrew Sparling. Following its appearance on this CD, played by David Owen Norris, the Sarabande for Piano Left Hand must surely join the repertoire for piano left-hand! The disc ends delightfully with the Rondo for Dancing (1970) played by two violinists and the (optional) cellist.

These pieces may not be the greatest of works but they are immensely listenable and deserve to be heard by a wider audience and I, for one, am extremely grateful to Madeleine Mitchell for her bringing this project to fruition and leading such spirited performances with just the right degree of flair. This is a valuable addition to the recorded catalogue and one that, I hope, will encourage listeners to explore further recordings of Grace Williams’ music.

iClassical rating:

¹ Grace Williams declared her favourite instrument to be the trumpet.

Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 – Work No. 91 in our collection

The Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (27.01.1756 – 05.12.1791) was, during his short lifetime, one of the most prolific composers of the classical era. He showed prodigious ability from an early age. Already competent as a pianist and violinist, he composed from the age of five and performed before European royalty. Mozart went on to compose more than 600 works, many of which are acknowledged as pinnacles of symphonic, concertante, chamber, operatic, and choral music.

In 1781, Mozart moved away from Salzburg to the musically more sophisticated Vienna, where he was a freelance composer, pianist and teacher. From the outset, in Vienna, he enjoyed considerable success, particularly as a pianist performing his own concertos and with his early comic opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail (1782). During his final years in Vienna, he composed many of his best-known concertos, operas and symphonies, including Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K550 the score of which was completed on 25 July 1788. This great symphony is written in the key of G minor and the melancholy feel of this key pervades the first movement, although other movements are lighter in mood. The work comprises the usual four movements, but what is slightly unusual is that Mozart uses sonata form to structure the first, second and fourth movements. The third movement is the usual minuet and trio.

There are many fine versions of this symphony on record. One of our favourites remains Karl Bohm’s 1961 account with the Berliner Philharmoniker recorded in Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin as part of the first complete set of Mozart’s symphonies to be recorded. This symphony is currently available as part of a bargain two-CD set containing symphonies Nos. 35 – 41. This is a big orchestra version. Another great recording of this work is directed by Claudio Abbado and his Orchestra Mozart recorded at Teatro Manzoni, Bologna in June 2009.

However if we are to recommend one version is must be the one conducted by that superb Mozartian, Sir Charles Mackerras with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra recorded in excellent ly balanced sound by Linn Records that enables every fine detail to be heard. In these unrivalled performances Mackerras encourages his players to move between this work’s passages of tenderness and beauty and those of high intensity and great excitement in a most natural manner. This is some of the best playing of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra that I have ever heard – they were truly on top form.

View the other works in our collection.