Classical home listening: Rachmaninov Symphonies 2 & 3; Byrd’s Mass for Five Voices

Completing their Rachmaninov cycle, the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, have now released Symphonies 2 & 3 and Isle of the Dead (Deutsche Grammophon). The Russian composer had a close association with this orchestra during his exile years in America. The sense of affinity is evident in these compelling performances, which manage the tricky balancing act of being at once voluptuous and reined in. In No 2, Nézet-Séguin doesn’t hesitate to linger over tempi, to encourage violin portamento (slides from one note to the next), but the result feels authentic and vigorous rather than schmaltzy.

No 3, premiered by the Philadelphia in 1936, was not popular with the critics and is still somewhat eclipsed. Here it bursts with brassy energy and agile strings, shadowy and seductive as well as fiery, in a persuasive account. Isle of the Dead is, as ever, urgent, mysterious, unearthly: a brilliant performance, with a recorded sound as transparent as the work is vaporous.

 In commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the death of William Byrd (1539/40-1623), the Gesualdo Six, directed by Owain Park, have recorded his Mass for Five Voices (Hyperion) and other works, including the Ave Verum Corpus, and the Lamentations of Jeremiah, with a missing part reconstructed by Park. Starting his career as organist and master of choristers at Lincoln Cathedral, Byrd progressed to the Chapel Royal in London, moving in the court circles of Elizabeth I, the Protestant queen. By the 1570s he was living the secret life of a Catholic, his wife named as a recusant. The Mass, concise and restrained, probably dates from the 1590s, when the composer was living in Stondon Massey, Essex.

Pure in tone, intonation impeccable, the Gesualdo Six sing with precision and fluency, every line of polyphony audible. The Sixteen, the Tallis Scholars, Winchester Cathedral Choir and others have made top recordings of this repertoire. The chamber scale of the Gesualdo Six creates an authentic intimacy for works that might well have risked the lives of those who performed it.


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