Saturday 2 August 2014

A new Mendelssohn recording from Riccardo Chailly and the Gewandhausorchester with pianist Saleem Ashkar on Decca is an absolute joy

Following on from his terrific recordings of the Beethoven and Brahms symphonies for Decca, Riccardo Chailly  now brings the Gewandhausorchester, Leipzig to Mendelssohn, a composer with a close connection to this great orchestra.

Decca’s latest recording of Chailly and the Gewandhausorchester features Mendelssohn’s Ruy Blas Overture in its original 1839 version in a critical edition by Christopher Hogwood, a World Premiere, the Incidental Music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the two solo piano concertos where Chailly is joined by pianist, Saleem Ashkar . Some of the works on this disc date from Mendelssohn’s Musical Directorship of the Gewandhausorchester which he took up in 1835.
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With the Overture in C minor: Ruy Blas, Op.95 (first version 1839) the Gewandhausorchester’s fine textures are immediately apparent with Riccardo Chailly bringing a fine pulse as the music takes off. This is beefy Mendelssohn full of dynamics and thrust though with beautiful textures and exquisitely played quieter passages.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Incidental Music, Op. 61 (1842) receives a suitably lighter touch with the Gewandhausorchester providing a glorious sound when the Overture, Op.21 (1826) takes off, full of excitement and beautifully turned woodwind phrases. This orchestra has the tautness of a chamber ensemble, with terrific dynamics. Their pinpoint accuracy reveals some lovely little details, with distinctive horns and lovely string textures.

There is a beautifully lithe Scherzo again full of lovely orchestral textures tautly played, with beautifully controlled dynamics and an Intermezzo finely shaped by Chailly. The Gewandhausorchester’s lovely, characterful horns give a distinctive sound to the Nocturne with some lovely wind textures generally. Finally, the Wedding March is full of swagger and vibrancy, with the Gewandhausorchester’s brass sounding through brilliantly and a beautifully done trio section.

These two works provide a stunning opening to this disc before the Piano Concertos with Saleem Ashkar 

Born in 1976, in Israel, Saleem Ashkar studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London, with Maria Curcio, and was appointed as Associate in 2004. He has also studied at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater in Hanover with Professor Arie Vardi.

It was Zubin Mehta who discovered the young pianist and engaged him, aged 17 years, as soloist with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra to play Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto. Since then he has appeared regularly with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, the Israel Chamber Orchestra, the Jerusalem Camerata and the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra. Saleem made his Carnegie Hall debut in New York under Daniel Barenboim, has appeared with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Staatskapelle Berlin.

He has performed with conductors such as Zubin Mehta, Riccardo Muti, Lawrence Foster, Sebastian Weigle and Vladimir Fedoseyev and given recitals in Berlin, Frankfurt, Florence, Brussels, Oslo, Amsterdam, Chicago and Brussels. In 2006 he made his Salzburg debut and appeared at the Summer Festival with the Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by Riccardo Muti.

Saleem Ashkar hurtles in to the Molto allegro con fuoco of the Piano Concerto No.1 in G minor, Op.25 (1831) full of youthful vigour with incredible fluency and passion. There is much clarity and fine phrasing as well as some phenomenal playing with tremendous support from Chailly and the Gewandhausorchester.

There is a crystalline purity to Ashkar’s playing in the Andante with this pianist drawing some lovely moments from the music with its occasional Chopinesque turns, with some beautifully fluent phrasing.

In the hands of Ashkar, Chailly and the Gewandhausorchester the Presto. Molto allegro e vivace is a real Presto. When Ashkar enters he paces it to perfection, full of life but beautifully clear and well phrased. There are some breathtakingly fine pianistic moments, a terrific vibrancy to his playing and a scintillating contribution from the orchestra with a great coda.

Some beautifully Mendelssohnian phrases opens the Allegro appassionato of the Piano Concerto No.2 in D minor, Op.40 (1837) before the allegro appassionato  really gets going with a really fine orchestral passage and Saleem Ashkar handling the intricate piano part superbly. There is a fine balance between soloist and orchestra. Ashkar brings much fine sensitivity to the more reflective moments and some terrific interplay with orchestra as they respond to the varied elements of this movement. Towards the end Ashkar’s virtuosic abilities are displayed to the full before leading into the Adagio. Molto sostenuto. There are some beautifully turned orchestral phrases and some equally fine piano passages, limpid and beautifully nuanced.

In the Finale. Presto scherzando the Gewandhausorchester positively knocks the listener out of any dream like state. When Ashkar enters and the memorable tune appears with its dashing rhythm there are some wonderful moments as the soloist and orchestra respond brilliantly, bringing this fine disc to an end.

I would not want to be without this terrific disc. It’s an absolute joy and thoroughly recommendable. These artists receive a particularly fine recoding, full of richness, immediacy and detail from the Gewandhaus, Leipzig and there are excellent booklet notes.

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