Friday, 12 August 2022

Prom 34: atmospheric Thorvaldsdottir and intimate Elgar from BBC Philharmonic

Eva Ollikainen
© Chris Christodoulou
Kian Soltani (cello)

Eva Ollikainen (conductor)

7.30pm, Thursday 11 August 2022

Anna Thorvaldsdottir (b.1977): ARCHORA


Edward Elgar (1857-1934): Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85



Trad., arr. Kian Soltani (b.1992): ‘Lovely Minka, I must away’


Jean Sibelius (1865-1957): Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43

Anna Thorvaldsdottir & Eva Ollikainen
© Chris Christodoulou

'Ollikainen steered the BBC Philharmonic players through this dark landscape with a clear and expansive beat. Thorvaldsdottir uses the orchestra to create remarkably haunting atmospheres and textures'.


'Soltani's Elgar was strong, with command of the virtuosic demands a given and expressively singing tone in the slower moments'.

'Ollikainen succeeded in bringing each (tutti) back to allow for Soltani’s attention to detail to shine through'.

Kian Soltani
© Chris Christodoulou

'Nothing was overplayed or forced, and there was thoughtful attention to detail throughout'.

'There were moments where Ollikainen drove proceedings with greater energy, such as the immediate pulsing energy of the opening, and encouraging intensity of response from the violins in the build to the big tune'.

Read my full review on Bachtrack here.

Monday, 1 August 2022

CD Reviews - August 2022

Baritone Roderick Williams has joined with the Coull Quartet for a wonderful new recording of works for voice and string quartet. Surprisingly, despite the centrality of the string quartet in the chamber repertoire, works that put this together with voice are relatively rare. At the centre of this disc is one of the most significant works, Samuel Barber's (1910-1981) 'Dover Beach'. Here it receives a gloriously atmospheric performance, from the mysterious opening from the strings through to its dark, almost desperate climax. Williams relishes in the word-painting, highlighting the expression on words like tremulous, slow and sadness. Williams has then arranged two other of Barber's songs here for string quartet accompaniment. This adds sensitive textures to 'Sleep Now', with a tender lullaby lilt in the strings, and disturbing interjections in the wintry central verse, with rumbles of unease remaining from the strings before the final peaceful cadence. 'Sure on this Shining Night', which lends its title to the disc, is full of soft and tender wonder, with gently pulsing strings, and a delicate violin countermelody winding its way around Williams' warm toned vocal line. Following the Barber is 'Tree Carols', a set of five songs by Sally Beamish (b. 1956). The poetry (by Fiona Sampson) is full of dark imagery, colour and emotion, with dark simplicity expressing loss in 'The trees are troubled', and high, bright lines evoking starlight and 'tree heaven' in 'The tree is a changing sky'. Writing specifically for Williams, Beamish exploits the ease and bright tone of his higher registers, and the bloom of his high lines in 'The Miracle Tree' which opens the set is contrasted wonderfully with the shimmering strings to create a sense of wonder. At the start of the disc, Williams is joined by soprano Sophie Bevan and tenor James Gilchrist for a collection of songs by Peter Warlock (1894-1930). Warlock is probably best known for his Capriol SuiteThe Curlew song cycle, or perhaps some of his boisterous drinking songs, but he wrote over 120 songs, as well as numerous choral pieces and works for voice and chamber ensembles. There are a couple of duets here. 'Corpus Christi' sees a soft-toned Williams paired with mellow warmth from Bevan, against darkly sliding harmonies from the Coull Quartet, and in 'Sorrow's Lullaby', Bevan is joined by Gilchrist, the two voices weaving with a violin line, strings muted throughout. Elsewhere, Gilchrist brings a light bounce to 'Chopcherry' and 'The Fairest May', and he floats lightly above the dancing strings in 'My lady is a pretty one'. Bevan shows clarity and impressive control in the melodic leaps to high notes in 'A Sad Song', and sweet simplicity in 'My little sweet darling'. Williams is gently lyrical in 'Mourn no moe' and suitably plaintive in 'Take, O take those lips away'. The disc ends with three more arrangements from Williams, this time of songs by Frederick Delius (1862-1934). In 'I-Brasil', the mystery of the mythical island is captured in the falling snap rhythmic figure, and Williams is suitably wistful in the sorrowful calls. The open fifths at the start of 'Twilight Fancies' sit particularly well with the strings here, sounding almost like horn calls, and Williams is atmospherically expressive above the rich string textures. The accompaniment for the final song, 'Young Venevil', is playful and imaginative with bird-like violins, and Williams places the melody delicately above, with some effortlessly light top Gs. This is a fascinating disc, offering some delightful repertoire with top notch performances from singers and players alike.

Various. 2022. On This Shining Night - Music for Voice and String Quartet. Roderick Williams, James Gilchrist, Sophie Bevan, Coull Quartet. Compact Disc. SOMM Recordings SOMMCD 0654.

In this short disc, Italian pianist Alberto Nones performs the three works by Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) with Fantaisie in the title. Nones’ approach here is to somewhat strip away the virtuosic fireworks to reveal the precise detail that sometimes gets lost in more overtly showy performances. This is very evident in the fluid Fantasie-Impromptu, Op. 66. The outer sections certainly flow here, apart from occasional halts in the momentum, and there is no compromise of tempo. The central section, however, could flow more, as there is extensive pulling about of the tempo here. But every detail can be heard, and the final section, whilst not as fiery as some other performances, is certainly impressive. In Fantasie, Op. 49, Nones’ approach is perhaps more successful, with its gentle opening to the drama that unfolds in a somewhat matter of fact way. Nones gives weight where needed, but the chorale like sections have a gentle simplicity. Nones gives the Polonaise-Fantaisie, Op. 61, a more stately, expectant opening, bridging well the transition from the recit-like statements into the flowing dance that finally gets going. There is a lightness here that allows the dancing melody to sing out, and the build to the virtuosic conclusion is not rushed or obscured by excessive weight. So whilst these might not be definitive recordings of these work, there is much to be savoured here in Nones’ refreshingly unfussy playing, revealing fresh insights into familiar works. 

Chopin, F. 2022. Complete Fantasies. Alberto Nones. Compact Disc. Convivium Records CR074.

Somewhat slightly different territory for me now - another pianist recording with Convivium, but this time the Italian jazz pianist Matteo Bisbano Memmo. Clearly a highly virtuosic pianist, he demonstrates this with some astonishing playing in the first half of the disc, a selection of standards, with a number of arrangements from the extraordinary Art Tatum. Here, Bisbano shows no fear, with rippling fluidity and startling virtuosity in Charlie Mingus' 'Duke Ellington's Sound of Love', and the wild, fiendishly racing 'Tiger Rag'. There is some lightness of touch in 'Alfonsina Y El Mar', and softness in the rich chords of 'Yesterdays', but mostly the requirements of the extreme virtuosity does lead to a somewhat harshly percussive sound in places. However, in the second half of the disc, Bisbano moves to a selection of his own compositions, and the mood is completely different. The virtuosity is still evident, in the driving energy of the extended composition, 'Metalknife', for example, but there is also more dynamic variety in the lively, urban 'Smokey Stogie', and enigmatic, more lyrical writing in 'Rose'. He uses the open piano strings effectively at the mysterious start of 'Metalknife', and the atmospheric, slow-moving harmonies in 'Stardust Light' are highly effective. And what to finish with? Well, a cover of Metallica's 'Master of Puppets', of course. He captures the relentless drive and percussive hammering here, once again with highly virtuosic playing, but there are also moments of sudden delicacy in the brief lyrical interludes. Overall, this is an impressive display of virtuosic talent, but for me, it is in his more expressively varied own compositions that Bisbano's pianistic voice shines.

Various. 2022. Metalknife - Music for modern piano. Matteo Bisbano Memmo. Compact Disc. Convivium Records CR066.

(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in Scene, August 2022) 

Infectious dynamism from Currie, assured Bruckner and Shostakovich from the BBC SSO

Alpesh Chauhan & the BBC SSO
© Chris Christodoulou
Colin Currie
Alpesh Chauhan (conductor)

7.30pm, Friday 29 July 2022

Colin Currie
© Chris Christodoulou

Nicole Lizée (b.1973)
Blurr is the Colour of My True Love’s Eyes, Percussion Concerto

Anton Bruckner (1824-1896), arr. Stanisław Skrowaczewski (1923-2017): String Quintet in F major, WAB112, Adagio

Dimitry Shostakovich (1906-1975): Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47

Colin Currie and purple cello
© Chris Christodoulou
Lizée:'A kaleidoscope of slick effects and novel textures'.

'Chauhan steered the orchestra with precision through the complexities of rhythm and rapid tempo shifts and Currie’s infectious dynamism made for an exciting performance'.


'An impressive intensity of emotion, with Chauhan weaving the string textures together with confident command'.


'Confident playing throughout, strong solo work from many, bright brass, and once again, some extremely quiet string playing'. 

'A highly assured performance that just didn’t quite reach the full height of intensity on the night'.

Read my full review on Bachtrack here.

Tuesday, 5 July 2022

Lewes Baroquefest – 20-23 July 2022

Lewes Baroquefest is back – 20-23 July, St Michael’s Church, Lewes. The festival, directed by John Hancorn and Julia Bishop, opens with ‘A Baroque Bouquet’ from Trio ZAC, with music by Purcell, Locke, Handel and Bach (6.30pm, Wednesday 20). The Baroque Collective Singers are then joined by soprano Alexandra Kidgell for Purcell Anthems and Songs (9pm, Wednesday 20). 

Trio ZAC
Then there’s an evening of baroque chamber music including music by Cavalli, Corelli and Vivaldi from Alison Bury & Julia Bishop (violins), Catherine Rimer (cello) & Claire Williams (harpsichord) (6.30pm, Thursday 21). They are followed by ‘Baroque Alchemy’ from Piers Adams (recorders) and Lyndy Mayle (keyboard) (9pm, Thursday 21). 

Baroque ensemble incantati present ‘A Garland of Arias and Sinfonias’ from Bach, along with arrangements of traditional Ukrainian & Romanian music (6.30pm, Friday 22) – check out my review last month of their new Bach recording. More Bach follows, with two of his Cello Suites performed by Sebastian Comberti (cello) (9pm, Friday 21). 

Baroque Collective Singers

And the festival ends with the Baroque Collective Singers returning, joined by the Baroque Collective Players, for a performance including Handel’s Four Coronation Anthems, alongside more Handel and Pachelbel’s Canon (7pm, Saturday 23).

John Hancorn
(credit: Robert Knights)

Julia Bishop
(credit: Beth Mercer)

CD Reviews - July 2022

You may have caught Cesca Eaton’s film, Cuckmere: A Portrait back in the 2018 Brighton Festival, shown with a live score by Lewes-based composer Ed Hughes (b.1968) (I reviewed the recording of his score here back in April 2020). The local landscape continues to be an inspiration for his music, and his latest recording is titled Music for the South Downs. Once again there is a film connection – in 2021, Hughes was commissioned by the South Downs National Park Authority to provide a score for a film by Sam Moore celebrating the National Park’s 10th anniversary. This music formed the first movement of his Nonet, here in full, and you can view the film below or here. The Nonet is in three movements, for strings, flute, clarinet, horn, trumpet and piano, performed here by the New Music Players. The opening movement is obviously filmic, with a pastoral flow, gently pulsing brass and rippling violins creating a sense of calm motion. There is a slight sense of ease in the second movement, despite its Tranquil marking, with its use of repeated notes like slightly agitated birdsong, and the atmosphere darkens as the movement progresses. Flowing motion returns in the final movement, with minimalist repletion of figures burbling below slow moving lines, and pulsing chords in the piano part. This combination of steady momentum and lyrical atmosphere runs through the other works here too, with more immediate energy and swirling repletion in the opening movement of Flint, for example – requiring deft precision from the New Music Players. The Sussex landscape is here again, as well as a connection to a Sussex folk song transcribed by George Butterworth in 1912, which inspired the central slow movement. Its tonal lyricism is interrupted with occasional jarring interjections by the violin, disturbing the otherwise gentle calm. Unease is more prevalent in the final movement, with tonal themes trying to burst through the increasingly chromatic turbulence. The two studies, Lunar I & Lunar II were inspired by Isamu Noguchi’s sculptures, exhibited at the Barbican in 2021. There is a lilt to the first study, with lyrical lines weaving around darker harmonies, and the lilting triple time of the second study is put against insistent arpeggios, and swirling, rising flute lines, finally subdued for its quiet ending. Chroma is a single movement work for just strings, and Hughes makes great use of sudden dynamic changes to shift the energy here, from unsettled, quiet rumblings to insistent repeated rocking between chords, with a perpetual motion running beneath in the violins. The final work here, The Woods so Wild, is for piano quartet, and is performed by the Primrose Piano Quartet. The title comes from a Tudor song, ‘Will Yow Walke the Woods soe Wylde’, which also inspired Byrd and Gibbons to write variations, as well as Dowland, who quotes the tune in his ‘Can She Excuse My Wrongs?’. Hughes’ piece explores the consolation provided by the landscape around us, and he began writing it during lockdown. There is a definite sense of consolation in the rippling piano part of the opening movement, with gentle string lines above. Hughes makes use of rich low piano textures in the middle movement, and the final movement has a rolling triple time, with tricky cross-rhythms and pulsing energy. There are strong performances throughout here, and Hughes’ music is always stimulating and full of contrast. Despite being largely landscape-inspired, he never gets stuck in creating a single pastoral atmosphere – there is a constant sense of life, movement and vibrant change here.

Hughes, E. 2022. Music for the South Downs. New Music Players, Primrose Piano Quartet, Ed Hughes. Compact Disc. Divine Art Recordings/Métier msv 28623

And now for two Shostakovich
Symphonies from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Steven Lloyd-Gonzalez. Dmitri Shostakovich’s (1906-1975) Symphony No. 6, following the success of the fifth, promised originally a large-scale setting of a poem about Lenin, but in the event the symphony that he produced was purely instrumental. The structure is also unusual, with a weighty opening slow movement taking up more than half of its duration, followed by two relatively short, faster movements. The moods are also highly contrasting. The Largo has a searing opening with brooding strings, and a keening flute, and instantly here the BBC NOW strings present an intense sound, achieving a sense of sadness without tipping over into a harshness of tone. Lloyd-Gonzalez expertly steers the orchestra through this momentous movement, and the climax is full of heartfelt intensity. The contrast with the second movement couldn’t be stronger, with a tumbling clarinet leading into capering strings, with shrill woodwind outbursts, and here it is the BBC NOW woodwind players turn to shine, with adept playing throughout, particularly from the bassoons. The finale sets off at a gallop, and dances along, leading to a bright, humorously crashing finish. Written in 1945, again, Shostakovich had trailed a different narrative for Symphony No. 9, that this would be a celebration of Soviet victory over the Nazis. But what transpired was altogether more complex, its neo-classical humour certainly not overtly heroic. It opens in playful mood, with bustling strings against a sardonic piccolo theme, and punchy brass. Lloyd-Gonzalez keeps the insistent repetition motoring along to the end, and this is followed by a much more plaintive mood in the second movement, with a tentatively mournful clarinet solo followed by gently throbbing strings, and a lumbering rhythm. A typically Shostakovich gallop follows, with bright woodwind and precise articulation from the strings here. Not for the first time in this recording, the bassoon impresses, with a touching solo from Joshua Wilson. The finale has a building sense of energy, and the BBC NOW strings avoid their picky textures becoming too short. Lloyd-Gonzalez drives the momentum to the emphatic full orchestral climax, and a fiendishly galloping coda brings things to a lively end. These are strong performances of these two tricky symphonies, and I look forward to seeing more from Lloyd-Gonzalez.

Shostakovich, D. 2022. Symphonies Nos. 6 & 9. BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Steven Lloyd-Gonzalez. Compact Disc. First Hand Records FHR120. 

(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in Scene, July 2022) 

Brighton16 - Towards Expressionism - Saturday 9 July

Brighton16 will be singing music by Rheinberger, Brahms, Smyth, Bruckner, Reger, Schoenberg, and Strauss' 16-part anthem, Der Abend.

7pm, Saturday 9 July, St Michael & All Angels Church, Brighton

Entrance free


Tuesday, 7 June 2022

CD Reviews - June 2022

In 2018, conductor John Wilson relaunched the Sinfonia of London, a session orchestra with a long history, particularly in recording film music, and for their second recording with Chandos, they focus on German and Austrian composers, post World War II. Richard Strauss (1864-1949) composed his Metamorphosen, for 23 solo strings in 1945, and it is a heartfelt elegy and a musical realisation in many ways of the horrors that had been experienced in the preceding war. The Sinfonia of London strings here produce a deeply resonant and rich sound, and Chandos deserve credit for achieving precision in the balance, especially when all 23 lines are active. No detail is obscured, and Wilson steers the dynamic swells expertly too. In Strauss there are many climactic moments, and it can lose direction, but here there is a definite trajectory to the warmer major passionate centre, before the opening tragic lamenting material returns following a sudden violent stop. Yet despite the title, there is no metamorphosis into a positive new world – Strauss marks the end ‘In Memoriam’, and the subside into quiet darkness is achingly sad. The short Intermezzo for String Orchestra, Op. 8 by Franz Schreker (1878-1934) is an interesting work, with an opening reminiscent of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (written at around the same time), but moments of sweet, pastoral string writing too, and perhaps less overall bite. It is given a richly sensitive reading here, with Wilson’s attention to dynamic contrasts providing shape to its overt romanticism. The second half of the disc is given over to the Symphonische Serenade, op. 39 by Erich Korngold (1897-1957). This was composed just before Korngold returned to Austria from the US, during which time he had carved out a successful career in Hollywood, pretty much establishing the Hollywood movie soundworld of the time, and just after he had a heart attack which required him to step back from recording and conducting. Its opening movement shows an immediate shift from the more obvious ‘Hollywood’ sound, with some strident harmonies and tensely dramatic writing. The second movement Intermezzo has virtuosic pizzicato writing, and here the Sinfonia of London players excel, with tight ensemble and rhythmic energy, making the strange brief interjections of glassy bridge bowing and swoops stand out even more. The Lento religioso is heartfelt, but with a Mahlerian profundity that is arresting, and Wilson and the players give this sumptuous weight without any wallowing, and the repeated notes throb with insistent intensity. The violent outburst which interrupts the solace of the central solo passage is positively shocking here, and Wilson certainly extracts maximum drama from the score. The Finale sets off at a cracking pace, and is full of urgent energy. Wilson and the Sinfonia of London are highly impressive throughout these performances, bringing energy, precision and a glorious string sound to this rich repertoire.

Various. 2022. Metamorphosen - Strauss/Korngold/Schreker. Sinfonia of London, John Wilson. Hybrid Super Audio Compact Disc. Chandos CHSA 5292.

Now for Bach with a difference. The ensemble incantati, which consists of Emma Murphy (recorders), Rachel Stott (viola d’amore) and Asako Morikawa (viola da gamba), have collected together a selection of J. S Bach’s (1685-1750) keyboard works to perform in various combinations of instruments. Pianists will be familiar with the Two-Part Inventions and Sinfonias – basically pieces with two and three separate lines, with an educational intent, to develop playing the independent lines together. The same applies to his Trio Sonatas, or Organ Trios as they were actually written, which involve three parts – essentially two hands and the feet. In playing these with two or three separate instruments, immediately the individual lines come into their own, and no fluidity is lost through trying to negotiate playing them together on a keyboard. But it is in the different timbres of the instruments that add something new here. And that’s where the flexibility of Murphy’s different recorders and voice flutes is a bonus – so sometimes a warm tenor recorder is matched with the sonorous viola da gamba, or a brighter soprano recorder is paired with the slightly more brittle sound of the viola d’amore. They are also careful here in their selection, with the darker, more sombre pieces (eg. the Sinfonia No. 4, or the mournfully sighing No. 9) contrasted with the bright, lighter examples (Inventions Nos. 1 and 2, for example). There are also beautiful renditions of Bach’s chorale tune arrangements, such as the prayerfully lilting Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr, and the joyful, dancing Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend. They end their disc with the Trio Sonata No. 3, with more virtuosic lines for the alto recorder in its first movement, a lightly singing central movement, and a bright (if slightly stately for ‘vivace’) finale. This is then followed by a wonderfully graceful reading of the Aria from the Goldberg Variations, with the viola d’amore this time taking centre stage, and the tenor recorder and viola da gamba providing subtle inner and lower lines. A delightful collection, highly recommended.