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Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Shostakovich

Grieg Trio
Beethoven & Thoresen
Simax PSC 1167

Philharmonia Orchestra - Christoph Von Dohnányi
Brahms Symphonies No. 2 and No.4
SIGCD132 - 2 CD Set

Philharmonia Orchestra - Sir Charles Mackerras
Schubert Symphony No. 9

Philharmonia Orchestra
Shostakovich Festive Overture and Symphony No. 5
Vladimir Ashkenazy conductor

Readers will know that Musical Pointers does not routinely compare versions reviews of oft recorded canonic masterworks. So this is a very personal response to the receipt for review of three releases of symphonies recorded by the Philharmonia, and one of Beethoven's Archduke Trio.

The Grieg Trio in the Archduke are possibly a little too thoughtful, with many pointings of detail and for me not quite the flow I prefer. But they are amongst the better piano trios before the public and this disc is important for its bringing to a wider listening audience a fine work by the leading Norwegian composer Lasse Thoresen.

The Philharmonia/Signum "live" recordings are interestingly different. Christoph Von Dohnányi produces a lovely smooth sound from the Philharmonia strings, and these are very beautiful representations of his manner. I had enjoyed following his Brahms 4 in rehearsal and concert in Lucerne*. I listened through both symphonies recorded at the two South Bank Centre concert halls with satisfaction, drawn into Dohnányi's warmth of feeling.

The Philharmonia sounds quite different in the other releases. Ashkenazy's Shostakovich I found completely uninvolving on rehearing it afterlimiting my exposure for a number of years. The sound from Tokyo is dry and I found it hard to take, now, as the profound statement it clearly was in the fraught Stalinist days. The notes (anonymous, why?) take you through the history surrounding this problematic work, hugely important at its time, and preceded here by the brash Festival Overture which "now enjoys outings at fireworks spectaculars the world over". I've always preferred Ashkenazy as pianist more than as conductor; see recent welcome to his performance of Rachmaninoff's Corelli Variations on an otherwise less than compelling Nupen DVD.

The Signum disc carries an excessive four-page CV of the orchestra itself, not omitting its interactive webcast, first podcast by a UK orchestra and scores for computer games! Also the worst of Richard Haughton's three fish-eye images of the timpanist (why?) to be seen in each of these booklets.

Best of the three, and strongly recommended, is the new Schubert 9 from Sir Charles Mackerras (pictured) recorded at Queen Elizabeth Hall whilst the Royal Festival hall was being refurbished.

That 2006 performance has a feeling of "rightness" which makes you gasp with wonder and pleasure again and again. I had not been looking forward to listening to it by way of duty, but was quickly captivated and held to the very end.

Now back to working on the relative rarities which more need our support...

Peter Grahame Woolf

*- - On our last morning in Lucerne I was able to join acoustician Russell Johnson at the KKL Konsertsaal, for Christoph von Dohnányi rehearsing the Philharmonia Orchestra in Strauss and Brahms. Johnson explained the inexhaustible fascination of supervising the sound palette, each work and each orchestra and conductor combining to set up a multitude of variables, which have to be fed into the computer which controls the set-up of canopy, reverberation chambers and curtains. He also pointed out that Dohnányi's 'flat' platform arrangement was designed to filter the tone of winds and brass through the strings, achieving thereby better balance and blend, advantageous for projecting string tone. - - The rehearsals of Till Eulenspiegel and, from Salome, the Dance of the Seven Veils and final scene, gave me an opportunity to enjoy once again the sound of a great British orchestra on top form, responsive to every detail practised with Dohnányi and rousing to tremendous, thrilling climaxes. - - Dohnányi had the leader check balance out in the auditorium. Working on Brahms’ Fourth he tidied up a few moments and then the music somehow took over; they continued uninterrupted to the end of the first movement, at which point I had to leave. As one experiences with master class lessons, eavesdropping at the development of an interpretation in rehearsal is sometimes as rewarding as a final concert performance; I was pleased to note that the Lucerne Festival provides opportunities for students to attend rehearsals by the finest orchestras.