OPINIONS on Mahler symphony performances can vary to extremes. Don’t expect that to be any different in this set of the first three symphonies, in which Lorin Maazel conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra.
Gustav Mahler: Symphonies 1-3
Signum Classics, £16.99
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There will be those who deem some of his twists and turns of tempi indulgent; others who find that particular aspect of his interpretations a key factor in identifying their charm and individuality.
What is indisputable, however, is the self-belief that shines through. They are the first in a series of releases by Signum Classics that is the fruit of Maazel’s complete Mahler cycle with the orchestra in 2011. Even in those first three symphonies there is a sense of journey that is probing, exciting and anticipatory.
The Symphony No 1 is every bit the melting pot Mahler intended it to be. Maazel feeds its frenzy of intertwining motifs – not least the altering moods of the third movement - with a genuine folkish charm, combining questioning innocence with raunchy insolence. Only now and again does it lose its clean sense of definition. However, the finale blows any lingering cobwebs into oblivion.
There is a sense of continuity moving into the Second Symphony, the “Resurrection”, where Maazel’s impetuous logic once more allows elasticity and rigorous control to coexist. The ominous undertones of the massive opening are both gaunt and gripping, allowing its more sublime moments to shine with gentle luminescence, and colouring its central movements – the gorgeously wistful andante, the skittish scherzo and the ravishing “Urlicht” – with exquisite contrasts and glistening detail. Which sets us up perfectly for a resounding finale that is the glorious counterweight to the opening movement, and in which the BBC Symphony Chorus – along with soprano Sally Matthews and mezzo soprano Michelle Deyoung – provide the thrilling choral dimension.
In its own way, Mahler’s Symphony No 3 is as much a philosophical and religious quest as the “Resurrection”, and while Maazel reflects that in the powerful psychological expressiveness of the Third, he is ever mindful of its more humane qualities – the grotesquerie implicit in the slithering chromaticism of the opening, the lilting pastoralism and soulful Romanticism of the second movement, and the bracing, earthy spirit of the scherzando. Fine choral performances from the Tiffin Boys Choir and the Philharmonia Voices add further to the fulfilment of these performances. A series worth following.
Toy: Join The Dots
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This London psychedelic quintet are on a mission to prove themselves a group of serious substance, featuring as they do several ex-members of Joe Lean & The Jing Jang Jong – a band that became industry shorthand for the excessive burden of hype after splitting in 2009 without releasing their debut album. Toy’s second set is more record collection rock, recalling the propulsive krautrock rhythms of Neu! alongside a raft of fuzz and feedback loving 1980s/90s English indie guitar bands from Ride and My Bloody Valentine to Spiritualized. Imitation reigns over innovation, but the songwriting stands tall. Join The Dots and Endlessly are textural, wiggy jams to get hopelessly lost in.
R Kelly: Black Panties
As well indicated by a cover depicting R Kelly bathed in young women all wearing nothing but, yes, black panties, this controversy-hound’s 12th album isn’t exactly wholesome fare. Behold Cookie, with its allusions to pleasuring a lady as one might consume a popular brand of sandwich biscuit, and you may feel a sudden strong urge to shower. But we’ll give Kelly the benefit of the doubt in assuming that Black Panties is as much about sparring with social taboos as it is filthily self-aggrandising autobiography. When it finds its lounge-y swagga with Every Position – the vocal auto-tune slapped on like strong cologne – it’s slick listening, if also faintly sickening.
William Berger: Hommage a Trois
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Baritone William Berger pays homage to three Classical operatic composers in this recording collaboration with soprano Carolyn Sampson, conductor Nicholas McGegan and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. The targets of his affection are Mozart, Haydn and the lesser figure Domenico Cimarosa. The selection of arias is broad-ranging, from the reflective lyricism of Haydn’s Il pensier sta negli oggeti (from L’Anima del Filosofo), to Don Giovanni’s mischievous Finn ch’han dal vino and the jocular lustre of extracts from Cimarosa’s Maestro di Cappella. Berger addresses these with affectionate characterisation, supported stylishly by the team.
ROSS AINSLIE & JARLATH HENDERSON: AIR-FIX
GREAT WHITE RECORDS, £13.99
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IT’S a few years since Ainslie and Henderson established their novel but engaging pairing of Scottish Border bagpipes and Irish uilleann pipe. Here they’re in the stalwart company of Ali Hutton, guitar, Duncan Lyall, bass, James MacIntosh, drums, and Innes Watson, fiddle, with occasional keyboards from Hamish Napier. The opening set features the rich whistle and fiddle flow of Gordon Duncan’s Full Moon Down Under before shifting up a gear into a heady twin-pipe rush of reels.That combination of mellifluous whistle work and brisk piping characterises the album, with excursions into funk and occasional jazz and eastern flourishes. Henderson also demonstrates his tuneful singing, notably in a cover of Gerry Rafferty’s Look over the Hill, with sister Alana on backing vocals and an anthemic pipes finale. The real show-stopper, however, is the exuberant Bulgarian whirl of Smeceno Horo – just the two pipes alone, twined in a cascade of reed sound over a rich hum of drones.
Gretchen Parlato: Live in NYC
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The American singer continues to build a steadily growing reputation. Recorded in two sessions at Rockwood Music Hall, this release includes both a CD and a DVD with four of the songs, and features material drawn from her two most recent studio albums, although they are given a subtly different treatment in most cases. Parlato’s light, flexible, slightly nasal voice, improvisational style and restrained delivery is supported by the excellent Taylor Eigsti on piano and two impressive bass and drum combinations. Her choice of material is characteristically eclectic, including her own Better Than, Herbie Hancock’s Butterfly, Lauryn Hill’s All That I Can Say, Simply Red’s Holding Back The Years and Wayne Shorter’s Juju, the latter with her own lyrics. The Brazilian song Alô Alô is an exercise in rhythm, while Robert Glasper’s arrangement of Weak suits her approach perfectly.
Red Hot + Fela
Knitting Factory Records, £13.99
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Fela Kuti, originator of Afrobeat, died 16 years ago, but he continues to make waves. His sons tour the world with their own bands, 90 other Afrobeat bands are in operation, and Fela! the musical is gearing up for an African tour. What we get here is a series of Fela-classic reworkings by artists as varied as Angelique Kidjo, Spoek Mathambo, Tony Allen, and the Kronos Quartet. Since Fela Kuti died of Aids, it’s appropriate that this tribute should be sponsored by the Red Hot Aids awareness organisation.