Monday, 20 May 2013

CD Reviews - May 2013

First of all, violinist Tasmin Little and pianist Piers Lane with Violin Sonatas by Richard Strauss (1864-1949) and Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936).  Both composers produced just one sonata each, but Respighi produced a set of Six Pieces (Sei pezzi) for violin and piano, of which three are included here.  Strauss’ Sonata is an unashamedly romantic work, composed when he was 23, and had met Pauline de Ahna, who he later married.  Right from the opening the central role of the piano is clear, with a vocal, almost operatic violin part.  Little produces a luscious, warm tone, with full-bodied accompaniment from Lane.  The beautiful central Andante has singing lines, with delicate filigree accompaniment, contrasting with the dark piano opening to the Finale, before both players are unleashed, and let rip with swaggering abandon, reminiscent of Don Juan.  In the Respighi Sonata, the violin is more forward – the piano part is still virtuosic, but more in response to or underpinning the extremes of the violin.  This work is also harmonically more unusual than the Strauss.  The slow movement is introspective, with rhapsodic piano writing, building to a climax of torment before subsiding into calm.  The Finale is a driven passacaglia, with great rhythmic propulsion, its 20 variations a real tour de force for both players.  After a brief respite for slow, chorale-like middle variations comes a singing, violin led variation.  A dark, pesante variation comes before the fast rhythmic drive returns, the piano writing now reminiscent of Rachmaninov.  The Sei pezzi are much smaller in scale, with a real salon feel. Melodia has a sweet tune, with a hint of something darker in its central section.  The Valse caressante has a shimmering piano opening, with a lilting, romantic feel, and Little & Lane really dance here.  The closing Serenata is suitably elegiac and sensitive.

Now for three works for viola and piano, from violist Christian Euler, with pianist Paul Rivinius.  They begin their disc with the Sonata by Arthur Bliss (1891-1975).  They launch straight into a swirling, turbulent opening movement, both instruments working hard together, with only brief calm moments of respite, yet surprisingly the movement ends rather suddenly and quietly, ushering in the dark central Andante.  This opens with mysterious viola pizzicato over dark piano chords, before the viola takes off with an almost eastern melody, and the movement then grows in challenge, particularly for the viola, using the uppermost registers of the instrument, before closing with the strange pizzicato textures of the opening.  The Furiant finale is a real stretch for both players, and they carry it off with appropriate élan.  The Sonata from Arnold Bax (1883-1953) has a slightly sinister opening, with glassy piano chords beneath a modal, Celtic viola line.  The slow Finale has thick, heavy piano chords, and feels sombre and quite impressionistic, yet with a surprisingly relaxed conclusion.  Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) composed his Suite originally for viola and small orchestra, but also arranged the work for viola and piano, which is what we have here.  The eight pieces form three thematic groupings – Christmas (Prelude, Carol, Christmas Dance), Folk (Ballad, Moto perpetuo) and Dance (Musette, Polka and Galop).  This is an enjoyable work, although I miss the greater variety of textures the orchestral version offers.  All the works on this disc were dedicated to the celebrated violist Lionel Tertis, who also premiered all three.  Overall, these are fine performances, with only the occasional shrillness of tone in the upper registers of the viola. 

The prolific clarinetist Michael Collins has yet another disc out, this time of Clarinet Concertos, with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, which he also conducts.  Yet this is not a straightforward concerto set – we have the classic Mozart Concerto, coupled with Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, composed for the great jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman, but we also have a concerto work from Australian composer Elena Kats-Chermin (b.1957), entitled ‘Ornmental Air’, and composed with Collins as soloist in mind.  Collins uses a basset clarinet for the Mozart, and the Kats-Chernin piece was also written for this deeper clarinet with an extended lower range.  Collins’ Mozart is incredibly smooth and silky, and his obvious communication with the orchestra as soloist/conductor gives this modern instruments performance an intimate chamber feel.  The Copland which follows is also remarkably tight given the absence of a separate conductor, and has great life and perkiness.  Collins plays the central cadenza with ease – in fact it is this incredible ease which characterises the disc as a whole, with the blend between soloist and orchestra intuitive throughout.  Kats-Chernin uses the same orchestral forces as the Mozart, and was intended as a companion piece, although beyond this there are few similarities.  The rhythmic, 5/4 drive in the first movement reminded me at times of John Adams, although it slightly runs out of steam towards the end of the movement.  This is followed by a cadenza passage, leading to the second movement, with a bluesy take on Liszt’s Liebestraum No. 3.  The pace picks up again, and the energy returns for the final movement, driving right to the finish.  Overall, these are not showy performances, but respectful and at all times sensitive to the diverse musical styles, quite an achievement in this wide-ranging repertoire.   

Pianist Steffen Schleiermacher’s new recording of the Catalan composer Federico Mompou’s (1893-1987) cycle Música Callada is a real find.  The title loosely translates as ‘Silent Music’, and comes from a poem by the sixteenth century Spanish mystic, San Juan de la Cruz.  This collection of 28 short pieces, in four Books, was composed between 1959 and 1967, when the rest of the classical world were engrossed in electronics and serialism.  These delicate miniatures are a world away from that, and seem to come from an earlier time, perhaps closest to Eric Satie, with a touch of Ravel – not surprising since he studied in Paris in 1911 and was close to ‘Les Six’, the group of composers which included Poulenc, Honegger and Milhaud.  These miniatures are almost all slow in tempo, yet Mompou somehow avoids monotony and the set builds to create a beautiful dreamlike atmosphere.  Schleiermacher’s sensitivity and variety of tone maintained my interest throughout.  A great discovery.  

(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in GScene, May 2013).

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