Monday, 20 May 2019

CD Reviews - May 2019

On his latest release, violinist Johannes Pramsohler is joined by fellow violinist from his Ensemble Diderot, Roldán Bernabé for a fascinating collection of French 18thcentury sonatas for two violins. Louis-Gabriel Guillemain’s (1705-1770) bright Sonata Op. 4 No. 2 which opens the disc immediately sets the tone here, with a sweetness of tone beautifully matched between the two players, and the frequent double-stoppings in both parts make this often sound like at least three of four violins are at play. The gentle Largo is given a delightfully graceful touch, and the dancing Allegro to finish has stylish poise.  Jean-Marie Leclair’s (1697-1764) Sonata Op. 12 No. 6 has beautiful colours in the delicate ornamentations, and Pramsohler & Bernabé excel particularly in the quirky fugal writing of its second movement. But the highlight of the disc has to be a sequence of pieces by Jean-Pierre Guignon (1702-1744), which were performed by Guignon and fellow virtuoso Jean-Joseph Mondonville. These are dazzlingly virtuosic sets of variations, based on tunes such as an air by Rameau (Les Sauvages), and the famous Spanish tune used by many composers as the source for variation, Les Folies D’Espagne, or La Folia. Here, the variations build in complexity and difficulty, so that by the end, both violinists are engaged in rapid leaps and fiendish double-stopping. Étienne Mangean’s (c.1710-c.1756) Sonata Op. 3 No. 6 restores some calm briefly with its stately opening movement, and pulsing Adagio, but the final Chiacona is full of rich stops and rapid runs, bringing this wonderful collection to a highly pleasing conclusion.

Pianist Mark Bebbington has recorded a disc of works by Arnold Bax (1883-1953), along with a premiere recording of Harriet Cohen’s (1895-1967) Russian Impressions. The disc opens with Bax’s Sonata in E flat major, which was never performed publicly in Bax’s lifetime.  He wrote it in 1921, but the densely textured work went on to form his First Symphony, so the piano version was laid to one side. It opens explosively with weighty, dramatic exclamations, although it subsides into relative calm, before slowly building back up in intensity.  Bebbington manages the thick textures and chromatic colours with great clarity, and paces the ebb and flow of the dynamic shifts with great control, and the watery ripples of the opening of the slow movement are captivating. Again, the music builds to a phenomenal climax, before a beautifully soft and tender conclusion. The weighty chordal opening to the finale gives way to a sprightly chromatic theme, and Bebbington leads us towards its emphatically triumphant close with energy and determination. The Sonata is followed here by an unpublished work by Bax, In the Night (Passacaglia). This has a dreamy, nocturnal feel throughout, and after the fireworks of the Sonata, it gives Bebbington the chance to demonstrate a softer touch, although there is also a fervently romantic climax here too. The Four Pieces from 1947 were again not performed in Bax’s lifetime, and receive their premiere recording here. A spiky, sardonic Fantastic March is followed by more nocturnal writing in the dark Romanza, then a calmer Idyll, before an uneasy, turbulent Phantasie to finish. The single movement Legend concludes the disc here, with its rippling arpeggios and cantabile central melody, concluded with more emphatic chordal writing. But before this comes Cohen’s Russian Impressions. Pianist Harriet Cohen was a key figure in English music of the time, premiering works by many composers, including Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Ireland and of course Bax, with whom she had a forty-year affair. Her Russian Impressions are her only original compositions in print. As one might expect from the title, the four movements are impressionistic, with an atmospheric Sunset on the Volga to open, followed by a solemnly touching The Exile. The Old Church at Wilna is equally moody, with its tolling opening chords, and The Tartars, the longest of the four pieces, uses more bell-like chords to underpin its darkly mellow melody. Bebbington brings out some of the richness in Cohen’s harmonies within these atmospheric miniatures, and they provide welcome contrast to the weight of Bax’s writing. An interesting exploration of mostly unknown repertoire, expertly and knowledgeably performed here.

(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in GScene, May 2019)

Friday, 3 May 2019

Intensity, delicacy and emotion in a highly intelligent programme from Piemontesi

Francesco Piemontesi, © Marco Borggreve

Francesco Piemontesi (piano)

Thursday 2 May, 2019

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

J. S. Bach, arr. Busoni:            Prelude and Fugue in E flat major, BWV552 – Prelude
                                                Chorale Prelude, ‘Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland’, BWV659
                                                Chorale Preulde, ‘Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme’, BWV645
J. S. Bach:                               Italian Concerto, BWV971
attrib. J. S. Bach, arr. Kempff: Siciliano in G minor, BWV1031
J. S. Bach, arr. Busoni:           Prelude and Fugue in E flat major, BWV552 – Fugue
Debussy:                                 Images, Book 2
Rachmaninov:                        Sonata No.2 in B flat minor, Op. 36 (original version)
Schubert:                                Impromptu No. 2 in A flat major, D935 (op. post. 142)

'He certainly gave us fireworks in Busoni’s thundering ... Bach, and of course in Rachmaninov’s turbulent outpouring'.

'...delicacy, contemplation and some beautifully coloured and atmospheric pianism'.

'Piemontesi delivered the cascading, pealing bells of Cloches à travers les feuilles with an ethereally soft touch'.

'...Piemontesi demonstrating dazzling virtuosity and phenomenal control as Rachmaninov’s passionate expression reached its heady climax'.

Read my full review on Bachtrack here.

Saturday, 20 April 2019

CD Reviews - March/April 2019

Peter Donohoe launches his series of Piano Sonatas by W. A. Mozart (1756-91) with a disc containing two Sonatas from Mozart's set of six, composed in Munich in his late teens, together with his penultimate Sonata, composed in Vienna a couple of years before his death aged just 35.  Donohoe also throws in the popular Fantasia in D minor, K284 for good measure.  The early Sonatas are full of energy and drive, and as with all Mozart's Piano Sonatas, when played as expertly as they are hear, they sound deceptively simple. Donohoe's tempi are on the well-judged steady side, which means that Mozart's frequent rapid runs and arpeggios are always clear and precise.  The hand-crossing passages in K284 have clarity and poise, and the substantial finale here, a theme and no fewer than twelve variations, has a wonderful arc of development, with more precision in the complexity of triplets against semiquavers and more hand-crossing.  Donohoe holds the final note of the tenth variation over into the lengthy elegiac variation that follows, in which he allows himself a little freedom to allow the elaborate ornamentation to breathe, before the light brevity of the final triple time variation brings the Sonata to a lively close. K280 again appears straightforward, but its first movement surprises with striking chromatic harmonic progressions in the development section, and Donohoe brings out the plaintive lilt of the slow movement, before dancing through the sprightly Presto. His Fantasia is heartfelt and more introspective, less obviously showy, which fits well with the lightness of the D major conclusion, which can sound incongruous if the first half is overblown.  Again, Donohoe takes a measured approach to the opening movement of K570, which allows space for the ranging harmonies in its development section to be registered.  The slow movement here is beautifully contemplative, and Donohoe plays the graceful second half with great delicacy, before enjoying the perkiness of the sprightly finale.  On the basis of this first volume, Donohoe's Mozart is warm, open and precise, allowing the music to breathe, achieving a fine balance, allowing for moments of drama without ever losing classical grace and poise.  Roll on volume 2!

Mozart, W. A. 2019. Piano Sonatas, Volume 1. Peter Donohoe. Compact Disc. Somm Recordings SOMMCD 0191.

Another first volume now, this time Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) String Quartets, from the Doric String Quartet.  Here we have the first and last of Mendelssohn's six published quartets, together with the fifth, spanning from age just twenty to the year of his death, aged 38 (so just 3 years older than Mozart at his death).  If you don't know Mendelssohn's chamber music, then you should - it is always full of life and energy, as well as incredible invention. The first String Quartet, Op. 12 stems from the time of Mendelssohn's infamous Scottish tour that produced the Hebrides Overture and the Scottish Symphony.  Its opening movement never stops flowing, with warm lyricism as well as a turbulent urgency, and the Doric String Quartet never let that sense of perpetual progress to sag.  The canzonetta second movement is light and delicate, and the players skitter through the quicker central section with ease.  Following the passionate and striking third movement, the finale is frenzied and again turbulent, with swirling, dizzying lines for the violins, before a surprising quiet conclusion.  Mendelssohn referred to the late String Quartet Op. 80 as his 'Requiem for Fanny', his beloved sister had suddenly died following a stroke.  It is indeed a work of passion, with its frenzied, nervy opening movement and earnest scherzo with its dark trio section. The slow movement is full of yearning, the Dorics bringing this out with beauty of tone throughout, and the finale, with its hints of Schubert's Death and the Maiden, is wild and heartfelt.  On a short second disc, we have the String Quartet Op. 44 No. 3, completed just before the birth of his first son in 1838.  It is lively and spirited, with a fleeting scherzo and a beautifully lyrical slow movement that moves from light to shade and back, before an energetic finale full of remarkable invention.  The Dorics once again carry the almost relentless energy throughout the work, particularly the lengthy finale.  Highly recommended.

Mendelssohn, F. 2018. String Quartets, Volume 1. Doric String Quartet. Compact Discs (2). Chandos CHAN 20122(2).

Silvius Leopold Weiss (1686-1850), a contemporary of J S Bach, has been a bit of recent discovery for me, and regular readers will have read about several recordings of his music in these pages.  Lutenist Alex McCartney (another favourite) has brought us more of this lutenist-composer’s wonderful compositions on his latest disc, Weiss in Nostalgia.  In the notes, McCartney explains this title in a rather roundabout way, which might seem rather technical – he performs the works on a 13-course lute, basically an instrument with additional bass strings that would have appeared later than when Weiss composed the two early Suites he plays here.  So he has the idea of an older Weiss performing his early compositions on a larger, more ‘up-to-date’ instrument.  This might not be particularly discernible to anyone not versed in the myriad forms of instruments in the lute family, but there is nevertheless definitely a rather wistful, nostalgic atmosphere here.  This might be partly to do with the very resonant, close recording, which makes for strong sense of intimacy in McCartney’s playing.  But the opening Prelude of the Suite No. 1, for example, immediately establishes a serene, calm atmosphere, followed up in the elegiac Allemande that follows. Nothing is rushed, with a gentle lilt to the Courante, and Menuets played with grace and poise. Only the Gigue lifts the tempo with a bounce in its step, and McCartney expertly brings out the melodic bass and tenor lines from within the texture in the closing Gavotte. The shorter Suite No. 13 that follows has richer, thicker textures, yet McCartney’s playing is never too heavy.  The Courante is rich and flowing, and the final Menuet has drone-like repeated bass notes, presumably with added emphasis on the 13-course instrument.  Whilst clearly challenging music to play, this is never overly showy, and McCartney consistently plays with grace and delicacy, making this a joy to listen to.

Weiss, S. L. 2018. Weiss in Nostalgia. Alex McCartney. Compact Disc. Veterum Musica VM019.

We go back at least three centuries now for medieval wind music performed by the ensemble Blondel.  Here we have shawms (early oboes), recorders and even bagpipes, along with the occasional sackbut (like a trombone) or slide trumpet, and an assortment of percussion instruments including tambor, frame drum and tamburello.  So an eclectic mix, and on a disc of a lot of relatively short tracks, this means there’s an incredible variety of textures and timbres. The overarching inspiration for the disc, which is titled ‘Of Arms and a Woman’, is the work of Christine de Pizan (1364-c.1430), described in the notes as ‘a forthright feminist, writer, political theorist, royal agony aunt and author of self-help books’, and most surprisingly perhaps, the author of ‘The Book of Fayttes of Arms and of Chivalrye’, a highly influential manual on modern warfare, of which Henry VII commissioned an English translation.  Although performed here instrumentally, most if not all the pieces were originally chansons or vocal settings, drawing on a wide variety of texts.  There are the usual themes of love and loss, but also a medieval call to arms in ‘A cheval, tout home a cheval’, and the slightly unsettling ‘Gardez le trait de la fenestre’ (Beware the arrow from the window).  Only one text is by Pizan herself, a poem of grief over the loss of her husband, ‘Dueil angoisseus’ (Agonising grief), set by Gilles Binchois (c.1400-1460).  As detailed are the notes about the music, the connection to Pizan and the overall theme is not always entirely apparent.  There’s lots of anonymous music here, as well as settings by Guillaume Dufay (1397-1474), Robert Morton (c.1430-c.1479), Guillaume de Machaut (1300-1377) and others.  The contrast between the slightly more rustic, eastern-sounding bagpipes, the lively shawms and the more subdued and subtle recorders, as well as the occasional splashes of percussion, allow the five performers here to demonstrate impressive range and versatility.  From the folky bounce and rhythmic energy of ‘A cheval, tout home, a cheval’ played on shawms to the strange rhythms in canon for recorders of Johannes Ciconia’s (1370-1412) ‘Le ray au soleyl’, and the atmospheric dance for bagpipes with tamburello of Machaut’s ‘Je vivroie liement’, this is a fascinating collection, well worth exploration.

Various. 2019. Of arms and a woman - Late medieval wind music. Blondel. Compact Disc. First Hand Records FHR69.

And by way of contrast, I'd like to highlight a local artist, Oli Spleen, who has joined forces with local indie band Birdeatsbaby for his second studio album, Gaslight Illuminations.  Spleen's work might not be an obvious fit with this column, and he is hard to categorise, yet this album, with its deft writing for strings piano, and Spleen's soulful and expressive voice, should have broad appeal.  Written after the death of his father, it touches on deep and dark emotions, and Spleen's closely miked voice is rich and immediate.  There are touches of French chanson in the poignant 'Almost Young', whilst there's more than a dash of country, with steel guitar, in 'Little Lost', vocals shared between Spleen and Mishkin Fitzgerald. Spleen is Bowie-esque in the darkly self-destructive 'Mother and the Spoon', and the self-destruction, even self-harm of relationships continues in 'Ghost', which Spleen concludes with an otherworldly, pained falsetto.  Their cover of Nico & the Velvet Underground's 'I'll be your Mirror' is pared back, over simple piano and strings (with a snippet of a Brahms Hungarian Dance on music box at the end!).  Hana Maria deserves mention for the strings writing and playing, with some hauntingly glassy strings on 'Mister Crystal' and an improvisatory violin line in the weirdly dark and distorted 'Turning Tide'.  Listen and download from
(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in GScene, March & April 2019)

Wednesday, 3 April 2019

Three Bartók concertos for the price of one: Capuçon, Eötvös and the BBCSO in Monte-Carlo

Renaud Capuçon, Péter Eötvös & BBCSO,
© Alain Hanel 

Renaud Capon (violin)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Péter Eötvös (conductor)

Sunday 31 March, 2019

Salle des Princes, Grimaldi Forum, Monte-Carlo

Festival Printemps des Arts de Monte-Carlo

Bartók, Béla (1881-1945): Concerto for Violin No. 1, Sz 36 (BB 48a)
                                          Concerto for Orchestra, Sz 116 (BB 123)
                                          Concerto for Violin No. 2 Sz 112 (BB 117)

Renaud Capuçon, Péter Eötvös & BBCSO, 
© Alain Hanel
'Capuçon was highly convincing, confidently supported by Eötvös and the BBCSO'.

'The BBCSO players were on strong form throughout, with a rich string sound in particular'.

'Eötvös also paced the frequent tempi changes here with great care'.

'Capuçon’s performance was captivatingly mobile and physical'.

Read my full review on Bachtrack here.

Tuesday, 2 April 2019

From bandoneon to Beethoven in Belle Époque splendour: Quatuor Renaud Capuçon in Monte-Carlo

Quatuor Renaud Capuçon, © Alain Hanel

Quatuor Renaud Capuçon
Sotty, Jean-Étienne (bandoneon)

Saturday 30 March, 2019

Opéra Garnier, Monte-Carlo

Festival Printemps des Arts de Monte-Carlo

Kagel, Mauricio (1931-2008): Pandorasbox, pour bandoneon

Beethoven, Ludwig van (1770-1827): String Quartet No. 12 in E flat major, Op. 127
                                                            String Quartet No. 16 in F major, Op. 135

Jean-Étienne Sotty, © Alain Hagel
'The captivating Jean-Étienne Sotty, spins on a revolving chair, laughs, hums and whistles as he plays'.

Beethoven Op. 127:
'Capuçon and friends certainly produced a rich, full-bodied sound'.

Op. 135:
'Their "Song of repose or peace”, as Beethoven described his Lento assai third movement, was exquisitely tender, with some beautifully warm and lyrical playing'.

'The questioning swept to one side, the Quatour Renaud Capuçon left us with a feeling of resolution and acceptance'.

Read the full review on Bachtrack here.

All the rage: the Signum Quartet in Monte-Carlo

Signum Quartet, © JM Emportes

Signum Quartet

Friday 29 March, 2019

Musée Océanographique de Monaco, Monte-Carlo

Festival Printemps des Arts de Monte-Carlo

van Dijk, Matthijs (b.1983): (rage) rage against the

Beethoven, Ludwig van (1770-1827): String Quartet No. 15 in A minor, Op. 132
                                                            String Quartet No. 13 in B flat major, Op. 130 with
                                                            Grosse Fuge in B flat major, Op. 133
Schubert, Franz (1797-1828)Du bist die Ruh, D776, arr. van Dijk, Xandi

van Dijk:
'A powerful workout for the intensely committed players'.

Beethoven Op. 132:
'The Signum Quartet's approach was bravely open, beginning with a bare, almost fragile pianissimo set of entries'.

'The intensity that the Signum Quartet gave to the suspensions that layer up brought the movement to a heart-stopping conclusion'.

Op. 133:
'An impressively commanding Grosse Fuge, ending a tour de force of two mammoth quartets'.

Read my full review on Bachtrack here.

Monday, 4 March 2019

Community Chorus is star in Glyndebourne's Agreed

Tom Scott-Cowell (Korimako) & Nazan Fikret (Elin)
© Robert Workman

Howard Moody (conductor)
Simon Iorio (director)
Cordelia Chisholm (designer)
Paul Pyant (lighting designer)

Tom Scott-Cowell (Korimako)
Nazan Fikret (Elin)
Michael Wallace (Alex)
Zara McFarlane (Kronos)
Louise Winter (Maya)
Ellyn Hebron (Spirit of Elin)

Community Chorus featuring Glyndebourne Youth Opera

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Glyndebourne Youth Orchestra
Ellyn Hebron (Spirit of Elin)
© Robert Workman

Anna Cooper (violin)
Adrian Zolotuhin (guitar)
Sura Susso (kora)
Buster Birch (udu)

Friday 1 March, 2019

Glyndebourne, East Sussex

Howard Moody: Agreed
(libretto: Anna Moody)

Sung in English with English supertitles

Zara McFarlane (Kronos) & Louise Winter (Maya)
© Robert Workman

'Moody’s music is atmospheric and watery'.

'The relentlessness of the watery music had the effect of dulling the pace somewhat, and particularly in Act 1, the dramatic energy was subdued'.

'The narrative ‘spirits’ ... moved seamlessly on and off stage, providing a stylistic counterpoint that was very effective'.

'Scott-Cowell (Korimako) and Fikret (Elin) convinced as the torn apart lovers, and their voices blended beautifully in their duets'.

The Community Chorus
 © Robert Workman
'The most credit must go to the chorus, who performed throughout with impressive commitment and accuracy'.

Read my full review on Bachtrack here.