Friday, 30 May 2014

CD Reviews - May 2014

The Gould Piano Trio have released a third volume in their series of Beethoven Piano Trios – but in fact this disc is a little different, in that there is only one single movement here (the Variations on ‘Ich bin der Schneider Kakadu’) that is performed by the full Gould Piano Trio.  The other two works on offer here, the Op. 11 and Op. 38 Trios, are for clarinet, cello and piano – so the Trio’s founder, violinist Lucy Gould gets a bit of a rest, replaced by clarinetist Robert Plane.  Once again, these are live recordings, recorded in 2012 at St George’s, Bristol.  The Op. 38 Trio is actually Beethoven’s own arrangement of his Op. 20 Septet, one of his most successful chamber works.  It is more like a serenade, with real variety across its six movements.  The Scherzo which follows the central set of variations is full of energy, and following a slow introduction, the finale really takes off with rousing Presto.  This is Beethoven in playful mode, and the players are clearly having fun here.  The Op. 11 Trio was in fact written first for the clarinet, cello & piano combination, but it was published with an additional violin part too.  It is a light, almost lyrical work, and the duet in the Adagio is particularly well suited to the clarinet and cello, with a beautiful tone from Plane here.  In between, we have the Variations, with the humour of the original popular song (‘I am the tailor cockatoo’) exploited throughout.  Whilst none of the works here are the most profound of Beethoven’s output, these spirited live recordings do full justice to their lighter, joyful nature.  One minor point – the otherwise informative notes by Robert Matthew-Walker are slightly confusingly written as if Op. 11 is performed in its version with violin, rather than clarinet.

The same forces have also recorded a survey of chamber works by York Bowen (1884-1961).  This time, the forces are slightly more varied, with Robert Plane accompanied by the Gould’s pianist, Benjamin Frith for Bowen’s Clarinet Sonata, and then the Gould string players, Lucy Gould & Alice Neary, are joined by Mia Cooper (violin) and David Adams (viola), with Plane this time on bass clarinet for Bowen’s Phantasy Quintet.  The rest of the disc is given over to the Gould Piano Trio by themselves, with the Piano Trio in E minor, the single movement Rhapsody Trio, and another single movement from an unfinished Piano Trio in D minor, which the Goulds have edited and prepared for performance.  Bowen’s music is unashamedly Romantic, and whilst he was incredibly successful in the early twentieth century, his rejection of the changing styles of more modern contemporaries meant that slowly his music fell out of favour, and by the end of the last century, his repertoire was largely forgotten.  The works on this disc here are definitely within a very distinct late-romantic idiom, with an obvious line back to Brahms, and a strong flavour of Rachmaninov (Bowen was even referred to in his day as the ‘English Rachmaninov’). This is perhaps most evident in his Piano Trio in E minor, a towering work, with a particularly virtuosic piano part, of which Frith demonstrates full command here.  The Phantasy Quintet is an equally impressive work, and Bowen makes imaginative yet unobtrusive use of the bass clarinet, blending it with the string textures expertly.  The Clarinet Sonata which opens the disc again demonstrates Bowen’s skill at creating a seamless flow through his compositions, and for all the virtuosity required here from both clarinet and piano (amply supplied by Plane & Frith), this is a remarkably coherent work which deserves more hearings.  Plane and the Gould Piano Trio have worked together extensively, and this is highly evident in their consummate performances on both of these discs.

Late last year, as part of their 40th birthday celebrations, The Tallis Scholars released a magnificent recording of the Missa Gloria tibi Trinitas by John Taverner (c1490-1545).  This is an incredibly challenging yet incredibly beautiful work, lasting just over forty minutes.  In six voices, the parts have enormous ranges, stretching the singers and requiring remarkable stamina to perform.  Taverner’s writing here is hugely architectural, and this further requires sustained intensity, which director Peter Phillips extracts from the 13 singers performing here.   As ever, the blend is impeccable, and the unfailing continuity of line is impressive.  The Benedictus is a perfect example of Taverner’s ability to stretch his settings of the text, and the setting of the ‘in nomine’ here became the basis of many other composers’ settings, such was its regard.  The remainder of the disc is given over to three settings of the Magnificat, for four, five and six voices.  They couldn’t be more varied in their settings, with the four-voice the most dramatic and imitative, and the five-voice is the most subtle, almost soothing.  In the six-voice, understandably, Taverner makes greater use of variety of textures, with complex passages for all six parts contrasted with sections for fewer voices.  Overall, this disc demonstrates the technical brilliance and profound depth of Taverner’s writing, and The Tallis Scholars have chosen a fitting way to celebrate their forty years of bringing such music to our ears.  Long may this continue.

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

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