Monday, 10 March 2014

CD Reviews - March 2014

Violinist Tasmin Little and the BBC Philharmonic, under Sir Andrew Davis, have gone for some canny programming with their latest disc of works for violin and orchestra by British composers.  Getting top billing is the ever-popular The Lark Ascending by Vaughan Williams, and it receives a beautifully sensitive performance from Little and the orchestra, without a hint of routine – a remarkable achievement in itself.  We are also treated to expanded arrangements of three popular Elgar salon pieces – the two Chanson (de matin & de nuit), and Salut d’amour.  Once again, these are lovingly yet not over-indulgently performed.  However, they head the disc with what could be regarded as the real ‘meat’ here – E J Moeran’s (1894-1950) Violin Concerto.  This is definitely a work that demonstrates how the performing canon often persists in ignoring works that deserve better exposure.  Moeran gives the solo violin plenty to do, and there is some really demanding material here.  However, the Irish tinges throughout, the lively dancing middle Scherzo, and a particularly beautiful slow final movement make this a very enjoyable and accessible piece that surely could be more regularly performed.  Here’s hoping Little’s advocacy, and clear love of the music, brings it greater recognition.  Delius’s (1862-1934) Légende was published in the composer’s lifetime as a work for violin and piano, and although the composer himself produced an orchestral version, it was only published in 1985.  This short single movement work is delightful, with singing lines for the violin, and skillful orchestration, particularly in the use of the wind section.  This is placed next to a similar length, single movement from Holst (1874-1934), A Song of the Night.  Unfortunately, this work suffers from the juxtoposition, and despite some interesting writing for brass, and a striking opening cadenza for the violin, it didn’t hold my interest – the performance cannot be faulted, however.  Throughout the disc, Little manages to combine a consistently smooth and sweet tone with an easy command of the considerable demands these pieces place on the soloist.  A well crafted programme of winning performances, highly recommended.  Little performed The Lark Ascending with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under David Hill in Brighton on 8 March 2014 - my review here.

I have reviewed live recordings from the annual Heimbach Festival which takes place in an Art Nouveau style Hydroelectric Power Station.  Despite this unlikely setting, it draws some great chamber performers, and the recordings have real excitement and energy, and the latest, a collection of chamber works from the early 20th century, is no exception.  The disc opens with Two Pieces for Piano Trio by Lili Boulanger (1893-1918).  She was the first female winner of the prestigious composing award, the Prix de Rome, at the age of 19.  Sadly, she died just 5 years later, and her life was blighted by illness.  Her older sister, Nadia (1887-1979), is better known, as she went on to become the the most celebrated composition teacher of the last century, with students including Copland, Philip Glass, Piazzolla and even Quincy Jones.  In fact, she composed a limited output herself, as the tragic death of her sister led her to vow to stop composing, devoting herself to teaching, conducting and to promoting the work of Lili.  Here, her early Three Pieces for Cello and Piano are already more challenging harmonically, in contrast to the more lyrical soundworld of Lili’s work.  Debussy is represented on this disc by an early Scherzo for Cello and Piano, and his more substantial Violin Sonata.  The Violin Sonata is performed here by Alina Ibragimova (violin), with Lars Vogt, the Artistic Director of the festival, on piano.  Ibragimova produces a slightly more rounded sound for me than cellist Gustav Rivinius, who plays the Debussy Scherzo, as well as the Nadia Boulanger pieces.  At times, I find his tone a little brittle – although to be fair, this is perhaps more suited to the astringency of Boulanger’s writing.  The final work on the disc is Paul Hindemith’s (1895-1963) Trio for Violin, Viola and Cello.  This is certainly a terbulent work, reflecting the times (the German composer wrote this in 1933) as well as the shifting styles in Hindemith’s work.  Sometimes his music can be almost unbearably dry and cerebral, yet here there is real energy and life, and the live performance from Christian Tetzlaff (violin), Volker Jacobsen (viola) and Bartholomew LaFolette (cello) communicates this well.  A fascinating insight into lesser known twentieth century chamber repertoire here.

Various, 2013. Boulanger, Hindemith, Debussy. Wanzhen Li, Gunilla Süssmann, Alina Ibragimova, Lars Vogt, Gustav Rivinius, Anna Rita Hitaj, Christian Tetzlaff, Volker Jacobsen, Bartholomew LaFolette. Compact Disc. Avi 8553295.

French pianist Jean Efflam-Bavouzet enters the middle period of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas in his second volume set for Chandos.  The ‘biggies’ here are perhaps the ‘Tempest’ (Op. 31 No. 2), the ‘Moonlight’ (Op. 27 No. 2), the ‘Grande Sonate’ (Op. 26), and of course the ‘Waldstein’ (Op. 53), which heralds the final period sonatas which will presumably form the final volume in due course.  As with Volume 1, Bavouzet’s playing is commanding, and following his ongoing Haydn cycle, it is interesting to hear him bring the articulation and joy of that repertoire into his Beethoven playing, whilst also having the power and gravitas required for the increasingly extreme writing in Beethoven’s sonatas.  I particularly like his ‘Tempest’, and the slow/fast contrasts in the first movement are especially senstively judged.  I personally like a darker, more menacing ‘Moonlight’ than Bavouzet gives, and the finale here could be wilder and less tamed.  However, his ‘Waldstein’ is a towering performance, particularly throughout the incredibly challenging Rondo finale.

Beethoven, 2014. Beethoven Piano Sonatas, Volume 2. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet. Compact Disc (3). Chandos CHAN 10798(3).

Finally, chamber music by Heinrich Hofmann (1842-1902).  Previously unkown to me, this German Romantic composer was apparently one of the most frequently performed German composers of the day, and yet is almost completely forgotten today.  Works such as his Sympnohy in E flat and his cantata, Märchen von der schönen Melusina, were widely performed in England and the USA too.  Having listened to this new CD from the Berolina Ensemble of three of his chamber works, I can see why the music was very popular, but I can also perhaps understand why it hasn’t stood the test of time.  The String Sextet is lively, with lyrical tunes and a rousing finish.  The Serenade for Flute and String Quintet has great writing for the flute, with a touching slow movement and dance-like finale.  The Octet, for the unusual line-up of flute, clarinet, horn, bassoon and string quartet, is the most interesting piece here, with greater complexity of ideas – yet there are still no great surprises.  And therein lies the crux – music that doesn’t surprise may be popular in its day, but it is unlikely to achieve longevity.  These are convincing performances, and the wind players in the Octet particularly deserve mention for their lyricism.  But I am not inspired to seek out more of Hofmann’s work on the back of this.

Hofmann, 2013. Chamber Music - Octet, Serenade, Sextet. Berolina Ensemble. Compact Disc. MDG 948 1808-6.

(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in GScene, March 2014)

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