MAHLER: Symphony No. 8 in E flat "Symphony of a Thousand"
Christine Brewer/Soile Isokoski/Juliane Banse, sopranos; Birgit Remmert/Jane Henschel, mezzo-sopranos; Jon Villars, tenor; David Wilson-Johnson, baritone; John Relyea, bass; City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus;London Symphony Chorus; City of Birmingham Youth Chorus;Toronto Children's Chorus; City of Birmingham Symphony Orch/Sir Simon Rattle, cond.
EMI CLASSICS 57945 (F) (DDD) TT: 77:36
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CASADESUS: Symphony No. 1, Op. 19 À Gaby Casadesus. Symphony N. 5, Op. 60 'sur le nom de Haydn.' Symphony No. 7, Op. 68 'Israël.'
Natasha Jouhl, soprano; Alexandra Gibson, mezzo-soprano; Mark Wilde, tenor; Michael Druiett, bass; Gateshead Children's Choir; Northern Sinfonia Chorus; Northern Sinfonia; Howard Shelley, cond.
CHANDOS CHAN 110263 (F) (DDD) TT: 64:13
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FRANCAIX: Le roi nu. Les demoiselles de la nuit.
Ulster Orch/Thierry Fischer, cond.
HYPERION CDA 67489 (F) (DDD) TT: 62:49
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SAINT-SAËNS: Javotte
The Queensland Orch/Andrew Mogrelia, cond.
MARCO POLO 8.223612 (F) (DDD) TT: 67:42
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With this live recording of Mahler's Symphony No. 8 Sir Simon Rattle completes his traversal of the composer's symphonies for EMI. And it is, indeed, an impressive account of Mahler's Symphony of a Thousand, although the closing minutes are too fast. It was recorded during concerts on three days in July 2004 in Birmingham's Symphony Hall with producer Stephen Johns and recording engineer Mike Clements. They have quite successfully captured the masses of sound, with soloists well balanced. However, this symphony cries out for surround sound and the sonic improvement of SACD. What has happened to EMI in today's surround sound world? Back in the mid '70's they made a number of multi-track recordings, some of which made effective use of the format and have been issued on DVD Audio. But EMI is mum about their plans for multi-channel releases, while Decca, Philips, DGG, Sony, RCA and other companies have issued many recordings on SACD or DVD Audio. At any rate, this is a Mahler Eighth of major proportions with a superb set of soloists, particularly sopranos Christine Brewer and Soile Isokoski. While this recording is important for Mahler enthusiasts, the performance isn't as exciting as the BBC Proms 2003 performance which recently has been shown a number of times on the United States Discovery channel in high definition television and surround sound. The orchestra was the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, a terrific group (expanded for the occasion) and they stand comparison with the best orchestras. Seven of the eight soloists were the same as in EMI's recording made a year later, and all of the choruses except one also were the same. If you get a chance to experience this BBC production in HDTV and surround sound, don't miss it.

One doesn't often hear music of Jean Francaix (1912-1997), but quite a bit of it has been recorded, particularly his numerous works for chamber ensemble. This wonderful Hyperion CD is part of the label's series of the composer's orchestral works and offers two ballets, Le roi nu ("The Naked King"), a variant on The Emperor's New Clothes composed in 1935, and Les demoiselles de la nuit ("The Ladies of the Night") composed a dozen years later, about cats. The latter takes place in the "decadent society of cats," with the tomcat Baron de Grotius planning to wed the White Kitten (danced at the premiere by a very young Margot Fonteyn) , but she falls in love with a human, becomes human herself but eventually returns to the feline world. Both scores are filled with delectable, frothy tunes, beautifully played by the Ulster Orchestra under Thierry Fischer's lively direction. Hyperion's sound is excellent.

Javotte is a ballet about peasant life and misfortunes of Jean and Javotte whose love for each other had a difficult road because of the opposition of her parents. The three scenes (Village Festival, Inside the House and Queen of the Ball) are filled with delectable dances typical of Saint-Saëns, and it is remarkable that this is the first recording. As a bonus we have four brief ballet interludes written in 1902 for the play Parysatis. For this, Saint-Saëns also wrote his vocalise The Nightingale and the Rose not included on this recording (if you can, hear the famous recording by Rita Streich). The Queensland Orchestra is very fine, conductor Andrew Mogrelia's direction spirited. This recording was made early in 1996, and although issued on the Marco Polo label which usually has a list price of about $15, has a semi-budget price. Recommended!

Robert Casadesus (1899-1972) is remembered primarily because of his remarkable pianism and the many superb recordings in his disk legacy which includes a number of Mozart concertos with conductor George Szell, and the complete solo piano music of Debussy and Ravel, the latter a close friend. Unfortunately many of Casadesus's finest recordings currently are not available on CD: D'Indy's Symphony on a French Mountain Air (with Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra), and Weber's Konzertstück and Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 2 (both mono recordings with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra—once were available in broadcast performances from a Carnegie Hall concert December 19, 1948, with Charles Munch and the New York Philharmonic; on a now-discontinued LYS CD). Chandos is to be commended for offering collectors premiere recordings of three of the composer's seven symphonies. Bruno Talouarn's CD notes suggest Casadesus should be remembered more for his composing than for anything else—but he is mistaken, at least judging from the three symphonies heard here. Although well orchestrated, there's nothing memorable in any of them, no dramatic moments, no lofty themes. Finest of the three is No. 5 which is his homage to Haydn. Symphony No. 7 (the composer's last work, completed in 1970) is a tribute to the people of Israel and features wordless voices supplied by four vocal soloists and two choruses. This work is dedicated to the memory of George Szell, who died in 1970—considering the conductor's fierce demands in music and performance, it seems unlikely he would have conducted the work, in spite of his great friendship with the pianist/composer. The performances heard here surely do what can be done for this music, and Chandos' sound is typical for the label.

R.E.B. (May 2005)