The Brodsky Quartet have released ‘In the South’, a collection of works designed to evoke a sense of sun, passion and dance. The largest work here, and central to the disc’s programme is Verdi’s (1813-1924) Quartetto, his only string quartet, in fact his only extant chamber composition. Despite the fact that Verdi rather talked it down, it is a strong work, showing his excellent command of sonata form, as well as a more expected capacity for melodic invention, and ends with a triumphant fugal finale. Prior to this, the Brodsky Quartet give us the Italian Serenade from Hugo Wolf (1860-1903), followed by Puccini’s (1858-1924) touching Cristantemi (Chysanthemums). The Italian Serenade is full of joy and playful dance, in contrast to the heart-rending sadness of Cristantemi, and both are performed here with consummate ease. After the Verdi, we have La oración del torero (The Toreador’s prayer) by Spanish composer Joaquín Turina (1882-1949), an enjoyable one movement programmatic work for string quartet, evoking the scene of a bullfighter praying and receiving the holy sacrament before entering the bull-ring. Then comes a greatmature work, Four, for Tango by Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992), originally written for the Kronos Quartet.This shows how far Piazzolla took his own Nuevo Tango, with extremes of dissonance and rhythmic effect. They end the disc with viola player, Paul Cassidy’s arrangement of two movements from the 24 Caprices for solo violin by Nicolò Paganini (1782-1840). The slow, sixth caprice is followed by the famous final theme and variations. The arrangements work remarkably well, although the virtuosity is diluted in the sixth, where the challenging multiple stopping is spread out between the instruments. However, the range of effects on display in the finale is great fun, and this finishes off another enjoyable programme from these great players.
Back in March, I was sent a wonderful CD of mezzo soprano Clare McCaldin singing music by British composer Stephen McNeff (b.1951) – you can find a review of this here. On the back of this, I’ve been listening to a CD of his larger scale orchestral works, performed by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Dominic Wheeler. Between 2005 & 2007, McNeff was composer in residence with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, during Marin Alsop’s tenure as Principal Conductor. All four pieces on this CD were written then, and premièred in Bournemouth. The first work, Sinfonia, is in three movements, with a mysterious opening (‘Quietly and oddly’), followed by a beautifully warm and lyrical slow movement, with touches of Copland or even John Adams. The final movement, ‘Boisterous’ has a real sense of fun, making great use of the percussion section. Apparently, the brief for this was to ‘make it lyrical and fun’, which this definitely is. Heiligenstadt was composed to accompany Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in concert, and the title refers to the Heiligenstadt Testament, which Beethoven wrote at the height of his despair about his deafness. McNeff uses brief, poignant and almost longing references to various Beethoven songs, which build to a climax, with jubilant horns claiming victory, before the work subsides into an uneasy close, almost in preparation for Beethoven’s Fifth to follow. For Weathers, the BSO are joined by the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus, in a work drawing on the poetry of ThomasHardy. Sadly, the CD does not include the words – I had to look them up, as the words are not always clear from the otherwise proficient chorus (the text can however be downloaded from the Dutton website here). This is a great showcase choral work, with some challenging moments for the chorus. It’s good to know that composers such as McNeff, and notably others such as Jonathan Dove, are still composing ambitious works for large chorus and orchestra. With only occasional tuning issues, mainly in the unaccompanied opening and quieter passages of the fourth section, this is a convincing and dramatic performance, and McNeff’s imaginative and varied orchestration add to an accessible yet engaging work. The final work, Secret Destinations, was dedicated to McNeff’s friend, the poet Charles Causley, who died in 2003, and represents three places of significance to Causley – the Rocky Mountains, the Basilica in Assisi, and Eden Rock. Once again, McNeff’s varied use of the orchestra creates constant interest, particularly his use of percussion and the brass section. Overall, a great showcase for a British composer I would definitely like to hear more from.
McNeff, Stephen. 2013. Heiligenstadt, Secret Destinations, Sinfonia, Weathers. Bournemouth Symphony Chorus, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Dominic Wheeler. Compact Disc. Dutton Epoch CDLX 7301.
(These reviews first appeared in GScene, September 2013).