Music Reviews

Folk Songs / Delius: A Mass of Life / Kynaston on the Organ

These reviews were originally written by Rob Pennock for The Classical Source.

Folk Songs

Works: Béla Bartók – 5 Hungarian Folk Songs, BB 108, Sz. 101 
Luciano Berio – Folk Songs 
Maurice Ravel – Cinq Mélodies populaires grecques 
Xavier Montsalvatge – 5 Canciones negras 

Artists: Magdalena Kožená (mezzo-soprano), Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle

Recorded at the Dvořák Hall of the Rudolfinum, Prague in June 2020 (Berio), November 2022 (Bartók & Ravel) and February 2023 (Montsalvatge).

Catalog Number: PTC5187075
Running time: 52 minutes
Performance 4/5

The concept behind this album is straightforward. Create a programme of 20th century works inspired by folk music.  

It opens with Bartok’s brilliantly orchestrated Hungarian Folk Songs, which date from 1933. Where, as throughout the album, Rattle and the Czech Philharmonic create beautifully balanced, transparent textures, with superb woodwind playing, which perfectly supports Kožená’s characterful singing. 

Berio’s highly accessible arrangements of eleven songs in five different languages were written between 1947 and 64. Here the sparse, heavily chromatic orchestration is brilliantly realised by the Czech players. Kožená clearly enjoys herself and one particularly admires the way she rasps and shrieks in A la femminisca, relishes the fast repeated La la las in Ballo and bounces her way through the concluding Azerbaijan Love Song. 

In Ravel’s Cinq Mélodies populaires grecques Kožená and Rattle bring lieder like detail to the texts and imbue the last three songs with a sense of quiet melancholy, including the supposedly more upbeat Tout gai! 

Finally we have Xavier Montsalvatge’s five songs celebrating the Caribbean (the racist title was unfortunately par-for-the-course back in 1945) which are full of luscious melody and what was probably thought of as local colour. Here the tension sometimes slips but the Lullaby and final dance are excellent. 

Pentatone usually produce excellent sound and the DSD512 version beautifully captures the hall’s over-reverberant acoustic. As always with DSD512 the image realistically distances solo instruments and sections and the orchestra has exceptional presence, Kožená is there in front of you and the instrumental timbres are very natural. The 24/96 stream is also excellent, if less life-like and the CD quality 16/44.1 is very good.

The booklet contains English translations, some of which appear to have been done by an App as opposed to a human being and the running time is too short.

Delius: A Mass of Life

Artists: Gemma Summerfield (soprano), Claudia Huckle (mezzo-soprano), Bror Magnus Tødenes (tenor), Roderick Williams (baritone), Edvard Grieg Kor, Collegium Musicum Choir, Bergen Philharmonic Choir, Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Mark Elder

Recorded September 26 to 29 2022 in the Grieghallen, Bergen

Catalogue Number: LWC1265
Performance: 5 

For those who think of Frederick Delius as the composer of gentle idylls such as In a Summer Garden and Late Swallows, A Mass of Life, which sets in German parts of Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, might come as something of a surprise. First performed complete in London in 1909, it includes parts for six horns, four trumpets and a battery of percussion. Its musical language is conservative, late-romantic without perhaps the sustained melodic distinctiveness of some of his shorter works.   

The greater part of the text is sung by a baritone, who effectively becomes Zarathustra, which Roderick Williams delivers with lieder-like attention to detail, immense conviction and considerable feeling. The only caveat being that with the advancing years his tone has thinned and acquired what is now close to a beat, but no other singer inhabits the role in the way he does. The other soloists, who are similarly characterful and intense, blend together beautifully and compared to those on the Charles Groves and Richard Hickox sets their style is more intimate and conversational. 

The orchestral playing and choral singing are vibrantly fresh and alive (the woodwind especially so); the ensemble immaculate. In the programme notes Mark Elder says the work ‘is often over-scored’, which presumably led him to seek out and achieve the exceptional clarity of line and texture that allows him to lay bare Delius’ distinctive harmonic language. From the fast and furious opening chorus onwards he always chooses the tempo justo, while still using subtle rubato and changes of pace, captures every change of mood and gives the big moments their full due; although it would have been nice to hear more of the timpani. All of which makes this the finest account of the work available.    

The album was recorded in DXD. By way of comparison, DSD512, the highest available streaming format of 24/192 and CD quality Flac 16/44.1 were used. The latter is very good, having a nice sense of depth and a pleasingly homogenous sound. Go to 24/192 and the acoustic is more tangible, there is greater presence and the soloist’s individual timbres are better captured. Turn to DSD512 and the effect is akin to removing old varnish from a painting. Suddenly there is a proper acoustic and more space around the instruments. The woodwind, string tone and percussion are weightier and more defined and the brass cut through more. The choirs have real bloom and projection; the soloists are very much there in front of you. 

As a bonus Andrew Mellor contributes some fine programme notes, with contributions from Mark Elder and the whole package has a quality feel to it.   

Franz Liszt: Nicolas Kynaston on the Royal Albert Hall Willis Organ

Works: Liszt – Fantasia and Fugue on Ad nos, ad salutarem undam, Prelude and Fugue on B-A-C-H

Artist: Nicholas Kynaston

Recorded in 1968 as part of Cathedral Recordings’, Great Organs series.

Catalog Number: base2music012
Running time: 44.02
Performance: 3/5
Sound: 5/5

Being a niche market there have always been specialist organ labels, such as Cathedral Recordings, who taped these performances at the Royal Albert Hall in 1968 featuring the 27 year old Nicolas Kynaston, whose 1970s CFP LP of Great Organ Works (also recorded at the Royal Albert Hall) sold well-over 100,000 copies.  And while traditionally reviews say more about the performances, here the sound takes precedence.

In Ad nos, ad salutarem undam when the massive opening statement of the theme relaxes at 1.27, the trill in the semi-quaver run is indistinct, like many others, Kynaston takes the legato marking to mean slower and allows the tension to drop. This happens throughout the work, which is particularly unfortunate in the extended central Adagio, where for all of the superb effects Kynaston creates; there is no sense of line and the Fugue sounds tired. 

The Prelude (or Fantasia) and Fugue is better, having more impetus, but the interpretive flair Alfred Brendel brings to the piano version (Philips) is absent. In fairness, I should add that many organs fans love slow, massive performances and they may well be delighted with Kynaston’s approach. 

The sound though is stunning. David Woodford of Cathedral Records used a mere two AKG C12A valve microphones to capture the image on two-track tape. To place this in context, the Royal Albert Hall’s almost circular auditorium holds over 5,000 people, is 41 meters high and in 1968 the mushroom like acoustic diffusers hadn’t been fitted, so there was loads of echo. Back then the organ had four manuals, over 9.000 pipes and 146 stops 

Jake Purches – himself an organ scholar – of Base2 Music used the original tapes to create an unedited DSD128 digital master, from which the DSD512 used for review derives. The dynamic range is huge, from pppp to ffff. The reverberation time exceptionally well-controlled, the overall balance perfect, clarity and definition are exemplary and everything sounds completely right and natural, which is what you would expect from state-of-the-art analogue sound.

The only downsides are a small amount of tape-hiss, but the ear soon filters this out and if you have neighbours it might be best to wait until they have gone out before playing this at a decent volume level and check for cracks in the plaster after and the running time is very short, but this often happens with analogue-to-digital audiophile transfers, where suitable fill-ups are difficult to find.  

Written by

Rob Pennock

While at university trained as a singer and learnt about music as a hobby. Write for Audiophile Sound and Classical Source. Have thousands of LPs and love DSD (particularly 512) because it is the nearest digital has got to the stunning analogue sound produced by the likes of Decca and Mercury. Endure, rather than admire, boring modern straight-line ‘music-making’ and have thousands of hours of historical performances, where expressive interpretive license is taken for granted. HIPP is fine in anything pre-Haydn, but silly little chamber orchestras in Beethoven and emaciated forte pianos are unacceptable.


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